Serving on the “Z”

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1966-1969 The Second Korean War

You won’t find a memorial for these veterans with the names of those who sacrificed their lives inscribed to honor their service. The battles fought along the Korean DMZ during the second Korean War (1966-1969) are unknown or forgotten except for the families of those killed.  It was the United States’ other “DMZ” where soldiers from the Second and Seventh Infantry Divisions were engaged in combat on a smaller scale, but no less deadly, than the operations faced during the same period by fellow soldiers in Vietnam.

It was cold for an August day and it was raining. It was the seventh straight day of rain. For the entire week I was at Fort Lewis policing the grounds, picking up cigarette butts, waiting for my orders, I never saw the sunshine.

The dark green army buses stopped in front of the processing center and the First Sergeant called out for all the personnel going to Korea to form a line in front of the first bus. Those going to Vietnam line up in front of the second bus.

I noticed the GI in front of me frantically erasing the penciled in RVN letters on the tab of his file folder holding his orders and replacing them with the letters ROK.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Quiet. I’m changing my destination from Da Nang Vietnam to Kimpo Korea.”

“Will that work? What happens if you get caught?”

“What can they do to me, send me to Vietnam? I heard other guys did it. When they got to Korea they were slapped with an Article 14 and assigned to a unit over there. We’ll see.”

“Good luck.”

“Yeah, thanks.”

A mist continued to fall as I boarded the dark green bus with about fifty other GIs. The bus took us from Fort Lewis to the Seatle/Tacoma Airport where we boarded a chartered Northwest Airlines flight that took us to Tokyo Japan. It was an eighteen-hour flight. The next day, we flew to Kimpo Air Force Base in South Korea.

When we landed at Kimpo Air Force Base, my friend with the altered orders was greeted by a couple of Military Police, MP’s, and was escorted away. I hoped he would enjoy his stay in Korea.

The Trip to the DMZ

I heard a voice call out my name.

“That’s me,” I replied.

“Well, welcome to Korea. I’m Sergeant Robinson, William Robinson. Just call me Robby, or if some brass are in the area, Sergeant Robby. Grab your duffle and follow me. The jeep is parked out front. You can throw your gear in the back.”

Sergeant Robby got behind the wheel of the jeep and I sat in the front seat next to him and looked over my orders. They didn’t make sense to me. I was attached to an artillery unit but assigned to the Second Infantry Division, the 3rd Brigade, Headquarters and Headquarters Company that was manning the eighteen and a half mile sector along the 38th parallel, known as the Demilitarized Zone, or the DMZ affectionately called the “Z” by those fighting there.

“I don’t understand this, Robby, my military occupational status, MOS, is 11H, infantry, recoilless rifle, but I’m assigned to an artillery unit and attached to a Headquarters Company. What exactly will I be doing?”

“You are a DMZ Rat now. We are the only ones who stay on the DMZ for our entire tour. We never rotate south of the DMZ like the rest of the units. You will be working with me and five other enlisted men and an Officer In Charge, OIC, a first lieutenant by the name of Halloran. He’s just one of the guys and sometimes forgets he has a bar. We answer to a Major Thompson who is the Brigade S2 Officer. S2 is intelligence, in case you didn’t know.  Major Thompson answers directly to the Brigade Commander, Colonel Billups, who answers to General Malik. That’s all you will have to know as far as the chain of command. The Headquarters Company commander and first sergeant hate us because they have no authority over us even though we live on their property. We don’t have to pull any extra duty, except patrol on the Z with the tracker team to verify a Killed in Action, KIA, either ours or theirs. You will be working in the Tactical Operation Center, or TOC, charting all activity on the Z  and we pass it on to the United Nation Command, which in reality, is the U.S. Eighth Army. The TOC is located in an underground bunker a couple of kilometers from the Military Demarcation Line, the MDL. You are going to love it. We have our own little Quonset Hut, with two men to a room. You can have your own liquor in your room as long as you don’t get carried away. And nobody fucks with us because they don’t know what we do and we don’t tell them. We monitor everything, on the DMZ. We count every North Korean who enters Propaganda Village in the morning and count every North Korean that leaves at night. We also record every shot that’s fired, every deer that is killed, every North Korean, NK, or UFO, unidentified foreign object, that is spotted or killed in the MDL, or DMZ or found floating down the Imjin River. In other words, we know everything that goes on in our sector.”

“Propaganda Village?”

“It’s a North Korean farming community south of Panmunjom located on the DMZ. They have to leave every day before dark. Rules of the armistice.”

“Sounds like this will be fun.”

“It beats being in the army. You want a beer?” Robby said, with a grin as he fired up the jeep and headed north, handing me a cold Olympia beer out of a small cooler behind his seat.

The road was nothing more than a tiny sliver of asphalt that wound its way through the countryside of South Korea. I observed women along side the road with babies on their backs, hammering large rocks into gravel, working as part of a road paving project  It was August and the air was heavy with the fetid and stifling smell of human waste used as fertilizer in the farmer’s fields. It was punctuated by the occasional blast of diesel fuel from the many Army deuce and a half’s filled with soldiers returning from their rotation on the DMZ as they passed dangerously close to our jeep, kicking dust up over the windshield and into my beer.

“Damn, I should have warned you to cover it up, the beer I mean. Do you want another one?” Robby asked.

“Nah, that’s alright. I’ll finish this one.”

“Suit yourself,” Robby replied as he popped a top off another Olympia.

The buildings in the villages were built right up to the side of the road and pedestrians had to jump out of the way as Sgt. Robby went blasting through.

“This village coming up is  Uijonbul. See that place on your right? That’s the Turkey Farm. Trust me, you don’t want to go there, especially if you want to keep your dick.”

Gaudily painted Korean women hung out the windows almost touching my shoulder while they shouted out what they were willing to do for a couple of dollars and finally obscenities when they realized they weren’t getting any business as Robby drove by.

“Why’s it called the Turkey Farm?” I asked.

“It’s an infamous whorehouse that has been here since the first Korean War in 1950. I heard some of the same girls still work there if you want to call them girls. The Turkish soldiers taught them some really kinky sex that some of the GI’s seem to like. But they are diseased and if you mess with them your dick will turn black and fall off. If you want or need a girl, get a Yobo, a girlfriend. For twenty bucks a month, you have your own girl. For us, it’s not worth it as we can’t get in the Vill that often and the Major isn’t too keen on us messing with the girls in Chang-Pa-Ri. It’s too close to North Korea and I guess he’s worried the Vill’s been infiltrated. He’s afraid they might nail our balls to the wall to get information out of us.”

Soon the asphalt ended and sergeant Robinson pulled over to the side of the road next to a sign that said, “You are entering a hostile fire zone. All personnel will wear helmets and flak jackets beyond this point.”

“Okay,  from this point forward you will be wearing your flak jacket and helmet. Think you can hold your rifle in one hand while you drink that beer? It’s kinda like holding your girl and drinking beer back home.”

“I think I can do that.”

“Good. Hang it out, if you gotta take a piss. We’ll be in Chang-Pa-Ri in about twenty minutes.”

We were traveling on a knurly and cratered dirt road surrounded by rice paddies being worked by Koreans wearing satgats, conical straw hats, with their cotton pants rolled up over their knees as they stood in knee deep brackish-looking water.

“Whew, it stinks around here,” I said.

“You get used to it, don’t worry. When winter comes you can’t smell a thing. Probably because your nose is frozen shut. You can get frostbite and malaria all within a brief span of time here. Winds and snow scream through those mountains along the DMZ. It comes from Siberia and Manchuria and it is damn cold. It got down to forty below last winter. I was told the wind chill has been recorded as low as a negative 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Aren’t you glad you won’t be manning the barrier?”

“Damn straight I am, Robby. I’m from Wisconsin but I don’t like the cold.”

“Then you will be in for quite a surprise. I’m from southern California and I hated every day this past winter.”

As we moved onward we lost the use of the footbrake in our jeep from fording the creeks we crossed on the way to Chang-Pa-Ri, the last village along the Imjin River and the restricted Demilitarized Zone.

“There is a bar in Chang-Pa-Ri called the First Chance Bar,” Robby said. “It is the first building on the left side of the road into Chang-Pa-Ri from the DMZ. The sign reads “First Chance Bar” on the way into the village and “Last Chance Bar” on the way out of town. It is a convenient place to have your last drink while you wait for transportation back to your unit north of the Imjin River if you ever end up going into the Vill.

By the time we reached Libby Bridge and crossed the Imjin River, the sun was making its descent behind the mountains lining the Z.

Next: Ghost Walkers and the CIA.

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