A NIGHT IN CHANGPA-RI, 1969
The deuce-and-a-half revs it diesel engine as thick black smoke billows from its exhaust pipe curved toward the sky. In summer months wearing khakis with the blue infantry braid, polished brass with blue backgrounds, and our unit crest affixed to our epaulets, we pile onto the back of the truck. (In winter months we will wear the strack OD-green wool uniform with pants tucked into our combat boots.) The truck bounces past the front gate of Camp Wentzel making a right turn down the pot-holed dirt road that winds its way to the Libby Bridge. Along much of the road there are signs warning of the adjacent mine fields. We will all have an ample coating of dust before this trip ends but nothing can dampen the excitement that we feel as we anticipate liberty in the town of Changpa-ri. (Units north of the Imjin River were allowed 5% of their assigned-strength on pass at any one time. This meant we averaged a pass about every 10 to 14 days. Because many soldiers were often broke or on medical restriction, one could often finagle an extra pass once in a while.) At the Libby Bridge, with pass in hand, we jump off the truck and stand formation. The military police will check our passes against the pass list to catch any truant soldiers trying to sneak a few hours in the vill.
We are now back on the truck slowly crossing the Libby Bridge. As the truck rolls into Changpa-ri the smell of diesel is supplanted by the indigenous aromas of rural Korea. It tweaks one's nose in strange ways. It is an odor that we will never forget. The deuce-and-a-half comes to a stop in front of the "Last Chance Club" (rast chan-su ku-rubbi to the natives). Immediately off the truck we are accosted by the "camp followers" even before we have brushed the dust off ourselves. I look over at my friend and see his eyes blinking through the thick coat of dust on his face. The Last Chance's sign cleverly reads "First Chance" as you enter Changpa-ri and "Last Chance" as you leave the vill but the "Last Chance" moniker is its only spoken name.
Some of the newly arrived GI's will be lured directly into the Last Chance. Most of us will drink "maek-ju" (beer) in the vill as we have been warned it will minimize our susceptibility to the poor sanitary conditions. In addition to the bar and the flock of business girls at the Last Chance, there is warm-up room off one end of the bar, a veritable smoker is always in progress. I see my very first porn movie here. It is not that I have lived a sheltered life but porn is not as ubiquitous in 1969. This is before home videos, and long before DVD and streaming videos on the Internet. Downing some beers and watching porn will significantly increase the propensity to consume the services of the Changpa-ri belles. Eventually, you need a restroom and are directed to the smelliest john you have ever been in. It is an indoor outhouse. The wall-urinal drains into a gravel pit under the floor. The waterless toilet dumps into a holding tank that is not emptied often enough. The honey bucket will eventually come through town and empty it. In 1969, Korea is in every way a third-world country; human waste is sold as fertilizer. For the first-time visitor, it is a surreal experience. For only a couple of dollars in Military Payment Certificates (MPC, as we are not allowed to have greenbacks) you can buy a "short-time." Short-time is the business girls euphemism for a 2 or 3 hour romp in the sack. There is a good ratio of business girls to GIs and the solicitation by the girls continues unabated for as long as you are in the vill. Some girls will accommodate more than one GI in a given night. Trouble amongst the soldiers is not uncommon. Soldiers are not allowed to wear civilian clothes in the 2nd Division area so trouble often breaks out between soldiers of different units. On this night, a soldier a couple of tables away from me stands up on his table and informs the crowd that he is "the baddest mother-f**ker in the place" and tells the soldiers at an adjacent table that their unit is a bunch of pussies. All hell breaks loose. With bottles and chairs flying, a brawl ensues. I silently slip out a side door with beer in hand looking for another club.
Before the evening is over, most of the visitors to the vill will succumb to alcohol and constant "you like come my hoochie?" cajoling of the girls. Most of them are dolled-up and over-perfumed. As you weaken, you will feel yourself pulled along by the arm on the dirt road that runs through Changpa-ri. Somewhere along the road you will be yanked down a narrow walkway and into a courtyard. The courtyard is the center of life for the Koreans. Sometimes protected by a partial roof, it is virtually outdoors. It is here that mamasan cooks meals for the clan and as much socialization as the weather allows will take place. If you become a regular visitor, it is also here that you will return for special parties. Around the courtyard are entries to the small rooms mostly occupied by the business girls who work the bars of Changpa-ri. You will be asked to take your shoes off and then be allowed to enter the room. The room is only slightly larger than the bed. A small corner of the room is used to hang clothing. While you are contemplating the intercourse that is about to begin, but before you have a chance to get comfortable with the maiden, the rice-papered door suddenly slides open and mamasan enters. She is very persistent and deals more directly with you than a door-to-door salesman. Even if this is your first time, you have been groomed for this moment. You have been told you can probably get what you want for 2 or 3 dollars. You also know that no one ever pays more than $5, even for the foxes. You will always make your payment to mamasan before the fun begins. Mamasan will pocket whatever you pay. Later, the girl will get a very small percentage of the fee. Girls are indentured servants who are kept in perpetual debt for the clothing, makeup, perfume and other occupational needs that mamasan provides. You finally have your fun and you learn that the better you treat the girls, the better you get treated.
You watch your wristwatch so you can be sure to be back to the Libby Bridge in time for your ride back north of the Imjin. You will probably not wait until the last minute but head back to your favorite club around 11PM. This will give you a chance to hook up with your friends and have a couple more beers before catching your ride back. At 11:45PM you meet your chauffeur in front of the Last Chance and are back on the truck. After a short stop on the north side of the Libby Bridge, where the MPs will once again check your pass against the pass list, you are headed back down the bumpy dirt road in darkness. The truck approaches Camp Wentzel. On some nights you will be able to hear the North Korean speakers blaring propaganda. The truck parks on "Company Street" and you jump out. You saunter back to your quonset hut and slide into your bunk.
During your tour, you will repeat this scenario for as many times as you have the good fortune to get a pass. You will never forget the vill and your close encounters of the Korean kind. If you are the average GI, it will be one of the Korean experiences that is seldom shared with others when you return home. You are convinced that they will never be able to understand. If you stay around the Army for a while, you will understand what soldiers mean when they talk about Korea as the best kept secret in the Army.
Photo courtesy of Rick Benson