Never Volunteering for Anything in the Army
By M. Habberley
At last, Korea began to loom over the horizon, and a very daunting sight it was - dark mysterious islands rising sheer from the sea with dark mountains stretching into the distant horizon. Pusan was a short, sharp introduction to the doubtful delights of Korea at war's end. The truce ending the fighting had been signed the week before we arrived, so we were spared the experience of full-scale warfare. The war had swept up and down the country several times, setting off new waves of refugees fleeing from the battlefront. Being mountainous, and very underdeveloped, the major long distant routes were historically confined to a few valleys, where all the flat land was taken up by rice paddy fields with complex irrigation systems, and a dirt road, usually only slightly above the water table.
Pusan was a city of 600,000 souls, but they were almost all displaced persons living in total squalor in huts made of whatever they could steal, and clothed in grey rags of anything that would help, even slightly, to keep out the cold. We arrived at the beginning of the first winter at the end of the war and the temperature was to gradually fall away to fifty degrees of frost, and that first winter the population was decimated by frostbite gangrene, which was a common sight, as all the available fuel of any kind had long been gathered and burnt. The traditional Korean house was made of mud with a thatched roof and had a hearth at one end outside the building, which fed a flue running under the floor and out the other end via a chimney of mud, or by then usually an ammunition container. This was an extremely efficient form of heating, fuelled by either rice straw or animal droppings, and either fuel burnt with an extremely strong smell which always hung in the air over settlements. On the few occasions I entered traditional Korean dwellings they were always warm and comfortable, but refugees lived as best they could - very poorly and prone to frost gangrene. After three nights in the British transit camp at Pusan railhead, we climbed aboard the KComZ (Korean Communications Zone) Komet, a wide-gauge American run railroad that rolled slowly north for two days, via Taegu.
We were dressed in our heaviest clothing, which was one set of UK battledress, but since we had become tropically acclimatized during our voyage we felt the cold badly. We tended to sleep in heaps on the train, as the carriages in which we travelled had hard wooden seating and all the windows blown out. Our discomfort was aggravated by the sight of American troops, lower down the train in comfortable, warm, well-lit coaches, enjoying heat that was piped under our coaches to get to them! The train travelled painfully slowly, with long stops at times, and each time we were besieged by crowds of shadowy children of all ages, mostly maimed, dressed in shreds of clothing, many suffering from frostbite gangrene and suppurating limbs. We were to be haunted throughout our stay by the suffering that surrounded us - it was hard to be unable to help, as a scrap of food or a coin thrown to them resulted in a full-scale battle with the winnings going to the strongest and the weakest left even worse off. To be decently dressed, well nourished, and passably housed, while surrounded by suffering which couldn't be eased by your own actions, induced a guilt which many were unable to handle, and troopships returning to UK had the poop deck closed in with rope netting to contain those psychologically disturbed by the suffering of the people and the hostile, alien culture and brooding countryside. I was affected myself, and unable to look at a healthy baby for several years afterwards without bringing it all back to mind. Korea, in the native language Chosen, or Land of the Morning Calm, had been reduced to a very low state by the war. The capital city, Seoul, lay in ruins, hardly a building had anything left of a second story, and the Parliament building was gutted and ruinous. Sanitation and clean water were non-existent.
Hundreds of children led a feral existence - hardly a life -in caves dug in the ancient rubbish dumps on the Han River flats outside the city, living by their wits. A favourite trick was for one child to tap or bang on the front of a vehicle, and while attention was drawn to this, others would be looting anything removable. Even a spare wheel would be detached from a lorry - civilian transport was by ancient ramshackle buses, kept running with stolen spares and petrol from the thriving Black Market in American supplies. The main feature of the buses was their crab-like approach - for some reason the rear axles, usually stolen from Mack trucks, were hardly ever in line with the bodywork, so it wasn't always easy to work out where they were heading, which was very alarming if you were driving in the opposite direction! After two days and nights on the train, we arrived at the railhead at Tokchon, and were almost on Commonwealth Division territory. The 38th Parallel had been taken as the dividing line and Commonwealth Div was responsible for a central part of the North and South Korean border along the DMZ or Demilitarization Zone. This was an empty area along the border patrolled only by small patrols, agreed by both sides, and illuminated at night along its entire length by parachute flares that were fired by mortar, hung in the air for several minutes as the flare buoyed up the parachute, then as one expired another would be fired to replace it, all this taking place along several hundred miles of border, which must have cost a very large fortune. Commonwealth Div included the Imjim River and the famous Gloucester Valley where the Gloucesters fought a notable action with the Chinese, and a Private Speakman won the VC, although I heard that he was a bit tipsy at the time! After staggering from the filthy train, about thirty scruffy and dirty RASC personnel fell in beside the tracks with backpacks and kitbags. We were asked if anyone had experience of driving a jeep, as a driver was needed for a unit that hadn't had much luck with its RASC drivers. The officer asking looked a pretty decent sort of chap, so against all the old soldiers advice about never volunteering for anything in the army, I stuck my hand up, and in two minutes I was driving an open Jeep up the dirt road with my new boss, with whom I was to serve a year and a half, or two winters and a summer, as we tended to think of time there. He was Geoffrey Hibbert, a civilian attached to the army and wearing a major's uniform, commanding officer of No 1, Army Kinema Detachment, 1 AKD for short.
This was an active service unit of the Army Kinema Corporation, a large organisation based in Croydon, responsible for providing the British army everywhere with film entertainment. We drove to a REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) heavy vehicle recovery unit, based in a compound at a road junction about half an hour from Tokchon, where No 1 AKD had a small compound of its own inside the REME perimeter. There was the CO, an elderly Scot, Lieutenant Jock Ward, as second in command, two projection equipment technicians who were ranked as warrant officers, and a pool of about ten operators classed as sergeants, all of whom were 'civvy-attached', meaning that they wore uniform in case of capture by the enemy, but were employed at civilian rates. The military personnel consisted of a corporal and three infantrymen who ran the film library, checking, splicing, and re-winding the 250 American and 150 British 16mm films in the library. I was one of three RASC drivers, and was officially the CO's driver. My duties were very light, as he often drove himself. The system was that a film library truck went out every day on a regular schedule of good meeting places in Commonwealth Div area, where representatives of the various units met to exchange films. They usually had a set of cinema equipment on loan from the AKD, either one or two GBL516 or Bell and Howell 620, 16mm cinema projectors, and when a battalion arrived they sent a body to be trained on a course run by the AKD. Smaller units were visited on a regular schedule by one of two or three mobile cinema outfits.
I soon began to sit in on the projectionists course, helped to run the next one, and after that I was mostly on the No 1 Mobile round, which included the Divisional General's Mess, a Mess that contained all the staff officers and brigade commanders, and several interesting smaller units like the Canadian Field Hospital (just like M.A.S.H.!) the Field Security Section (Intelligence) and Ammunition Examining Unit (death wish absolutely vital). Since I sported the silk neckerchief popular with civvy-attached personnel on my unit, it was usually assumed that I too was a civilian, and I got away with murder nearly all the time. There was one occasion when I took with me an alcoholic civvy-attached staff sergeant waiting for a berth back to the UK - a warrant officer in the Divisional Senior Warrant Officers' Mess spiked his drinks and I told him off in no uncertain terms, as I had the job of getting the sodden wreck back to base.
Unfortunately the SWO (Divisional) saw me the following day bringing a signal to Div HQ for transmission to the UK, and cottoned on to the fact that I was a mere RASC driver with no right to be socialising in his mess at all, let alone dressing down a member. He gave me a really masterly dressing down, but allowed that it had been a stupid trick for his WO to play. He would have been well within his rights to slap me in jail, but settled for making me a quivering wreck. I could tell he respected me for getting away with a good racket, but seeing one of his own WOs told off in his own mess by a private soldier was too much to bear. Life generally was pretty good - I spent the morning in bed, afternoons overhauling generators, and evenings into the small hours doing film shows with the mobile. We used to get requests for extra shows for special occasions, and would fit these in after the normal evenings show where possible. There were some really memorable evenings in all sorts of places, I remember a Maori farewell party with Hawaiian guitars and even Korean Hula-Hula dancers specially trained for the occasion, and everybody crying most convincingly!
The General's Mess was the prestige outing, of course one was not allowed to eat or drink in the bar, but there was generally something pretty good to eat in the kitchens. The Padre was always late for meals, which annoyed the chef greatly, and I remember him slapping several handfuls straight out of the dustbin on to a plate, telling the waiter, "Give the Padre this with my compliments". The Mess was well dug in, with a number of pet rabbits living in the mound and it was a great challenge to try for one for the pot but I never succeeded. I talked to the General's parrot a lot, but he would only speak if you were wearing the General's hat, which was usually hanging on a special peg. Had I been caught wearing the hat, the consequences would have been horrendous, but the parrot never squealed on me! We had two varieties of mobile cinema, either an open jeep with screen rack and boxes bolted to the floor and a generator on a trailer, or an old-fashioned Morris one-tonner of WW2 vintage, 4wheel drive but noisy and cumbersome. I preferred the jeep as much more sporting, although as we drove them open most of the time, in winter you had to drive with an extremely small slot in the wired front of the parka hood, and there was an issue of protective nose-warmers.
The Americans had petrol heaters in their hooded jeeps but we scorned such luxuries, I suppose we could have bought them on the Black Market but never thought of doing so - we looked upon windscreens as being rather non-macho! We were sent a shipment of generators that had Norman flat twin motorcycle engines, but these were simply not strong enough for the job, and almost coughed to a stop whenever a projector was switched on. We replaced these through the Black Market by buying 7Kw jeep-engine generators from the Americans, the price - one bottle of whisky each! American forces were dry, and the demand for hard liquor was insatiable, as any hitcher picked up on the road would offer ten or even twenty dollars a bottle. Our private soldiers were not allowed spirits but NCOs had a ration and there was always some to be had. Everybody did it. Geoff Hibbert bought an American Hydromantic command vehicle, centrally heated with all mod cons, for two bottles, and a stores truck with racking for the same price. Incidentally, a bottle of whisky was also the price of a Colt automatic 9mm pistol, which an American store man would simply cross off his list as issued, and no more questions asked. Many of our people collected Chinese 'burp' guns and other hardware, but I never had the urge. We did prop open our tent door with an old live shell though! Our quarters were in ten-man tents, very threadbare and you could see the stars shining through the canvas. We each had a camp bed and two heavy sleeping bags, one inside the other in winter. Heavy condensation from the breath made them sopping wet and they would freeze solid during the day, so you had to actually break the bag up before getting in. We had Japanese 'hand-warmers', like a cigarette case, with a platinum element. They were fuelled with lead-free petrol and helped to get a warmth going, though why nobody was asphyxiated I just don't know. Some people had favourite rocks that they warmed on the stove for use as hot water bottles.
There were two barrel stoves in each tent, burning diesel oil from a jerry can outside, although petrol often was put in them in really cold weather. These made the tent quite comfortable to a well dressed person, when turned up full and red hot, but in cold weather everyone coming in would give the valve a half turn extra, and if overfed they would get white hot and begin jumping up and down with a loud roaring noise. At that stage everyone bailed out and waited for the danger to subside. The stoves were about twenty inches high, and habitually used as seating during the summer. One autumn evening we were all just in bed when the last man arrived from the canteen after a skinful, and the stove had been lit for the first time and was just about red hot. He sat down heavily upon it, and we were all too paralysed with horror to make a move. It took what seemed a very long time for him to realise his mistake, and he was in hospital for some weeks with some very nasty burns down to the bone. The REME officers mess was in a Quonset hut, like a Nissen only much bigger, and an orderly filled a diesel stove with petrol from a jerry can while the stove was lit - there was a strong breeze at the time and the whole hut became red hot, with a giant spout of flame from one end. The members had just had a set of furniture brought from Japan at their own expense. "Save the furniture", they cried but no one lifted a finger, and it was all a burnt out shell in a couple of minutes. We also had mosquito nets, more to keep the rats at bay, as we took paludrine anti-malaria tablets daily. The rats lived in holes under the floorboards. Although a truck exhaust was regularly piped down the holes the rats seemed to thrive on it, and used to enjoy running up the seams inside the tent roof, probably seeking waste body heat, as it was strictly forbidden to sleep with stoves lit. When the rats fell off they landed with a thump on someone's mozzy net, which could be startling. They were a real menace as they carried hemorrhagic fever, which when passed to humans via a scratch resulted in a loss of blood and death in a matter of days. There was no known cure and the fever was the only way of getting back to the UK by Comet jet, because the Tropical Medicine Institute in London were very interested in it, but couldn't keep their patients alive for long enough to get a decent look at them.
The state of the roads in winter was abominable and there was a system of green, amber, and red road states. When amber was declared, authority at Brigadier level was needed to be on the road, and when red, there was almost no one on the roads, as the graders battled night and day to keep the mud, which constituted the road, swept into some kind of line. Since most of the roads were lined with rice paddy on both sides, as soon as water piled up and crossed the road, there was usually a narrow crack that rapidly widened below the surface, so that the first vehicle that broke through often disappeared entirely. Since we were considered to be essential morale-boosters, we had carte blanche to be on the roads in any state, and it was not unusual to drive a jeep and trailer crab-wise round a giant pot-hole containing several trucks and a couple of Scammell heavy recovery vehicles. The Americans at these times resorted almost entirely to helicopter transport. Our valley was on a main north-south route and there would be a continuous stream of small two man helicopters with cargo stretchers on the skids, in each direction.
There was a stores depot across the valley, about a mile away, which was constantly raided at night by gangs of armed bandits, who set off trip flares along the perimeter and were warned off with machine gun fire. The first time I went out at night with one of the civvy sergeants in a Morris truck, I was amazed to see a red dotted line come out of the hills, cross the road just in front of our truck, and disappear into the hills across the valley. "Was that what I think it was?" I asked about ten minutes later. "Oh, yes" he said, "we often get that, it's either bandits or some sentry getting bored." Later, I was several times fired on by Korean police, who all carried carbines, when refusing to stop at night when waved down. Although we were not supposed to travel alone, in practice I was alone more often than not. We carried Sten guns, but I can't remember having any ammunition. The black market value of the equipment we carried, in a desperate country where porno films from Japan were becoming a hot commodity, was such that we couldn't let the police see the projection equipment, or a muddy grave in the nearest rice paddy would have been the result. The police usually wanted to commandeer transport to take prisoners away from their villages. There were two villages near our camp, Tsin-Zah-Nee and Ka-Pa-Wee, but it was always dangerous to stop anywhere near a settlement. Prostitution and black marketeering were rife everywhere, and authority lay with whoever ran the rackets.
American troops had money to burn, so the main rackets centred near large American camps. The main legitimate industry was the returning of empty beer bottles to Japan, although importing was done by the military, they left the returns to private enterprise. The best-organised distribution system was Coca-Cola, who got endless supplies through to wherever Americans might be found. Our camp had its own canteen, but I was mostly out in the evenings, and there was a certain hostility between our lads and the REME, as we didn't do guard duties, which they resented. There were one or two of doubtful masculinity among the civvy-attached - no more than that - but REME tended to tar us all with the same brush. Pete Stocking, from the 1st Battalion, Essex Regiment, was an ex-Haileybury lad who spoke with an upper-class drawl and was very good looking. He also played the piano expertly, classical and jazz. This led the REME to pick on him a lot, which was a mistake, as he was an accomplished boxer and always won any fight. We of course had to back him up, and there were some full-scale brawls with a lot of black eyes as a result. Asahi and Nippon Pils were quite strong lagers, about the same as Carlsberg full strength. The usual thing was to hit the cap off the bottle, drink it down, and smash the empty on the floor, so that eventually you were walking in inches of broken glass.
It seems ridiculous now, but I suppose it relieved our hooligan tendencies. On the subject of masculinity, the transport company I would have joined if I hadn't volunteered was hugely overworked for a period of many months, and they had as a result of the strain, a very unusual outbreak of homosexuality in the unit, amounting to a majority affected, which I am glad I didn't have to live through - which of us knows who will be the last to be seasick on a sinking ship? This was severely dealt with at the time, and kept pretty quiet, and I've never heard of such a thing in the army, apart from this instance. The favourite films at that time, often requested for extra shows, were 'Genevieve', 'A Hill in Korea', and my own all-time favourite, 'African Queen', with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, and I still watch it any time it crops up. Many of our shows were in the open air, as we could put the screen up on the back of any truck. Summer insects were irresistibly drawn from miles around by the glare of the screen, and them flew up the beam of the projector. We used to set off a row of DDT bombs upwind of the audience, so that the gas drifted across in a cloud killing off all the wildlife. A major part of the Korean diet was 'kimchee', a very potent mix of sun-dried squid and garlic, which was so powerful on the breath that if one garlicky Korean crept into an audience of a couple of hundred, an instant roar of protest resulted. Another major aroma source were the 'honey-carts' that carried excrement from the villages out to the crops. When passing these in a jeep, the standard procedure was to take the deepest breath possible, hold it until bursting, then hope the air was again breathable. The buffalo that pulled the carts also let off a powerful aroma of their own, and the 'morning calm' around every settlement was always pretty potent, being full of smoke of strawy dung. My position as CO's driver meant that I sometimes drove to Seoul City by jeep, usually to collect films from aircraft arriving at Kimpo Airport, a wide expanse of slotted steel decking, with constant traffic of aircraft, mostly American C-130s, and also the faithful DC-3 Dakota. There were all sorts of sights in Seoul, and I was trapped in riots several times in an open jeep, which was not a happy experience being screamed at by bloodthirsty schoolgirls howling for round-eye blood, while police looked on approvingly.
The police were not to be trifled with. Our houseboy, Chon Kee Yung, insisted on coming with us into the DM Zone without a pass where he was dragged away screaming and returned ten days later much chastened, claiming he had been fed twice in ten days, which I fully believed. Security forces often had wire cages full of prostitutes and young children, but it just didn't do to take any interest. There was a small valley just behind our camp, and we often saw trucks full of bound prisoners drive into the valley, heard the sound of distant gunfire, and saw the trucks coming back empty. It just wasn't any of our business, and no one ever went up there to see what was what, curiosity as to the doings of Korean police being not a good idea! On one of my trips to Seoul, I visited the FMA (Forward Marshalling Area) near the railway station, and was astonished to hear my name called from nowhere. It turned out to be my old friend the Sergeant Instructor Horrocks from Blandford, whose court martial I gave evidence at. Now a corporal, he was in an underground dungeon with a grating in the roof, under the FMA HQ building, awaiting another court martial for desertion. Before I could get the full story, the RSM came out and bawled, "Get away from that prisoner, that man!", and that was the last I ever heard of him.
I also at some stage met a chap called Morris who had been a corporal with my father at Southport, then a sergeant at 5 Coy in Osnabruck, and I think he was some kind of Provost (Police) Sergeant in Korea. We mostly stayed very fit, due to lots of fresh air, and even in winter a strong wind tanned our complexions to a leathery brown. A peculiarity was a periodic wind, which blew very regularly, something like three days from Mongolia, and four days from the opposite direction. Korea also was a very active earthquake zone, and small quakes happened almost daily, bigger ones less often. To feel the earth under foot actually moving about is a fundamentally frightening experience. We were in no danger living under canvas, but to see Kamak-San, the dominant peak, actually shifting in relation to everything else defied one's belief in the laws of physics. Korean country burials were done with the body sitting upright in a small mound, and rice dolls and funeral paraphernalia were set about the grave and dire were the consequences for any round-eye tampering with the same.
December 1954 saw me back again at Pusan transit camp, waiting to get a troopship home. We were running behind time, since National Servicemen were paid compensation for late demob, and regulars weren't, and a particularly nasty mood hung over the camp as Christmas drew near. The routine was to hold roll-calls four times a day, and sadistic staff called out names for various 'lists', which seemed to be designed just to keep us guessing. Many soldiers were unstable from overwork and climate, or just from general gloom engendered by the country, and went 'over the wire' even at that late stage, to vanish into the stews of Pusan - a hell on earth if ever there was one. I squatted on a bank at the edge of the square in the moonlight on Christmas Eve, watching the canteen go up in flames, while several hundred men fought in one huge mass of kicking, swearing, completely cheesed-off squaddies. At last a place became available, on the Empire Fowey, whose sister ship, the Empire Windrush, had just sunk in the Med after a fire. The return journey took 43 days. It was wonderful to kiss the ground at the foot of the gangplank, and who would have thought Liverpool docks would inspire such appreciation! A cheer went up in the Customs shed as a bunch of RMPs who had been trying to maintain discipline aboard ship were taken off by the Customs to be searched, as some Liverpudlian ex-inhabitant of the military stockade in Korea had sent a tip-off on ahead that there was a fair amount of Japanese photographic equipment among their kit!