KOREAN NEW YEAR 1966 (IMJIN SCOUTS LOST IN PUSAN) BY STUART JAMISON
ACTA graduated its first class in time for Christma s, 1965. We took the holiday off, then reworked the curriculum to incorporate lessons learned in our first run. Class II kicked-off the second week of January, 1966, and concluded towards the end of the month. We had four days off until the scheduled start of Class III.
The cadre celebrated Class II's graduation with a drunken party in the mess tent. Tomorrow would be pay day, and everyone was looking forward to a few days of serious drinking after that.
Despite our seeming disregard for discipline, ACTA scrupulously maintained Army traditions. We lived by bugle calls, for example, some hauntingly beautiful (and unheard by soldiers who spend 30 years in the Green Machine). The following day, already several drinks into the mission, we fell out (to "Pay Call" and "Assembly") in our sharpest Class A's for pay. We all had allotments going home; no one drew more than $100.00 cash. What the hell? What would we do with it? We wandered back to the messhall.
SGT Fred Leak was a mountain boy from North Carolina. He was 5'5", and frequently complained that the streets of Changpa'ri were built so close to his ass, that, every time he farted, he blew dust into his shoes. Fred was also the self-appointed keeper of SSG Johnny Pierpoint, a 6'2" big-bellied, 225 lb, blond, crew cut, pugnosed and pugnacious Eastern Tennessee mountaineer who loved to get drunk and start fights. He reminded me of an albino boar with attitude. Leak approached me in the mess hall.
"Sir? Johnny wants to go over to Munsan'i and drive a train. He's going. I'm afraid he's gonna get in bad trouble. Will you come with us?"
What the hell? Why not?
Somewhere along the way to Munsan'i, we acquired 3 fifths of Johnny Walker Red (@$1.25/fifth) and changed our money into Won. We felt like Daddy Warbucks.
Once we reached our destination (the Munsan'i train station), Pierpoint announced he would handle negotiations. He went to the ticket window, flashed his wad of Won, and demanded three tickets, "to as far as this train goes." I assumed that would probably be Seoul.
The tickets were for Third Class. In Seoul, the conductor told us they were good for a long way to come; there was no need to worry about getting off any time soon. There would be conductors at every stop who would check tickets and let us know when we needed to do anything. We settled back to enjoy the trip.
It was the start of the Lunar New Year. Everyone was going home for the holidays. The car filled up, and then overfilled. We were the only Americans on board. The Koreans brought everything except their farm animals, and I think there were a few of those.
We gave our seats to little old ladies and ended up sitting on the floor in a rear corner of the car. SGT Leak had brought a pocket chess set, and as we played, we drew a crowd. Word passed up and down the train. Koreans jammed in from other cars to see the Americans. No one spoke English; the GIs were definitely Korean-challenged. So we sang to one another. We knew Arirang (the Kim sisters were big on the Ed Sullivan Show). All Koreans, it seems, knew Red River Valley (why?). This went on for quite some time
We acquired a military escort. Three ROK Marine 2LTs joined us. They knew no English. Then we were joined by a ROK Army 1LT who had been an attache' in the Korean embassy in Bonn and spoke German. I was just drunk enough by now to think I could, too. And damned if it didn't work!
We thought we had been drinking seriously until an old civilian redefined the concept for us. He stopped by the group and offered us a small, Coke-sized bottle of some rice liquor. To return the gesture, we passed him one of our Scotch bottles - which he promptly uncorked, chugged empty, and tossed out the window! We were expected to reciprocate in kind.
The rest the trip is a little blurry. There were a number of stops after Seoul, but I hadn't noticed what they were. Soon, however, our ROK officers detrained. We tried to get off with them, but my German-speaking friend said we had one more stop to go.
"Wo sind wir?" I asked. He said something that sounded suspiciously like "Taegu;" but that surely couldn't be right.
Both NCOs (but especially Johnny Pierpoint) were model representatives of our country and Army. I didn't do the image of the US Officer Corps any particular favors.
We detrained in unfamiliar territory. We walked up and down strange streets in what was, obviously, a large city. Pierpoint, with the nose of a bird dog, sniffed out a couple of friendly bars, but I was no longer up to it. As we were crossing the street to yet another Pierpoint-friendly bar, I stopped him.
"Johnny," I plead, "I can't handle this any more. I've got to go to bed, or I'm going to pass out here in the middle of this street and you and Leak are going to have to carry me."
"Fred, stay here with the Lieutenant. I'll be back in 10 minutes."
He was back in three - it seems bars weren't the only thing Johnny Pierpoint could sniff out. His performance was awesome. Wherever we were, it was no GI ville; we were the only round-eyes in the neighborhood. Pierpoint was getting all his intelligence from locals.
We walked about three blocks, to a nice 6 or 7 story building with a nicely appointed lobby. Our arrival was, because of Pierpoint, anticipated, so I was a little confused when the nice lady at the desk informed me, in English, that I could choose what I wanted for the night.
"I just want a bed."
She looked at me with amused disbelief. "This is not a hotel, Rieutenant."
I let her make the choice on condition I be allowed a ten minute headstart to the room. By the time my hostess arrived, I was whole worlds away in LaLa Land. * * * * *
I awoke in the half-light of dawn. My bed was shared by a silken-skinned damsel whose perfume delicately hinted of eau d' kimchi. We were both stark naked. I conducted a recon of the windowless room and discovered that, more than naked, I was bare - everything I owned was gone. In panic, I wakened my companion to find, predictably, I suppose, she knew no English. I somehow communicated my need to find the two Americans I had come in with.
We wrapped ourselves in sheets and walked up and down the hall, knocking on doors. My new friend would ask a few questions at each door, then lead me to the next clue. We hit paydirt on our third try. A voice answered our discrete knock in English: "Come in!" It was Leak.
Fred was engaged in a leisurely act of passion, and asked us to have a seat until he finished, which was only a minute or two. We exchanged good morning pleasantries, whereupon I rudely cut to the chase:
"Do you know where your uniform is?" No.
"Do you know where Pierpoint is?" No.
"Does your girl speak English?" It had never occurred to him to ask. The answer was no.
The four of us, wrapped in sheets, began the quest for Pierpoint. By now, the word was around the establishment that the strange Americans needed help, and girls were out in the hall offering directions. We found him within seconds.
Johnny Pierpoint was sitting up in bed with a lovely creature named, we found, Lilly. They were eating eggs (sunny-side up), bacon, toast and hashbrowns. Lilly (who spoke excellent English) had anticipated our arrival, and four more breakfasts were on the way. Johnny and Lilly were as naked as the rest of us.
"Where are our clothes?" Lilly picked up a phone (Leak and I hadn't had one in our rooms), asked a couple of questions, and said, "Ten minutes."
Lilly not only had a phone; she had a window. I looked out over a large, busy harbor. The morning sun was rising out of the sea. I mentally reviewed my knowledge of Korean geography and astronomy: large port = Inchon (?). Sun rises in the east over large port = (oh, God, say it isn't so) Pusan.
Lilly cheerully confirmed my fears. Oh, well, at least we now knew how far the train would go. And that Koreans could sing "Red River Valley" from Seoul to Osan to Taejon to Taegu to Pusan.. Great. Naked in Pusan. Didn't Aldous Huxley write that?
A knock on the door. Our uniforms. Dry cleaned, brass polished and correctly placed, shirts laundered and starched, ties, underwear and handkerchiefs (!) pressed, shoes spitshined. Attached to each cleaning bag was a small sack containing personal effects, and, most important, our wallets. Leak and I counted our money. Not a penny was missing.
We were treated to steam baths and massages, the world's greatest cure for hangovers. Lilly gave me directions to the nearest U.S. Class VI store, where I replenished our supply of Scotch.
We spent the next couple of days in this paradise. The breakfast-in-bed, spiffy-clean uniform ritual was repeated every morning. We took the girls out to eat and to a movie (Hitchcock's "The Birds," dubbed into Korean). Wherever there were prices to be negotiated, Lilly had us kept from sight while she completed the transaction at Korean rates.
Our time and money ran out. Our girls accompanied us to the train station, where Lilly insisted on getting the tickets. We were alone for a few minutes.
"How much money do we have?" We had had drycleaning, breakfasts, and three nights with the girls, all without paying a cent. We inventoried our funds. Pierpoint had $20 in Won; Leak and I had $10 each. We cooked up a plan, of which we were deeply ashamed:
"First, we'll get the tickets. Then, we've got to drag out the tearful farewells until the train starts moving. When it does, give your girl whatever you've got and run like hell."
And so it came to pass, exactly as planned, with one astonishing twist: as we left the girls in tears, Lilly counted her money - and gave chase! She caught up with Pierpoint just as he was swinging aboard the moving train, and gave him $10 change!
* * * * *
The trip home wasn't entirely uneventful. Somewhere north of Taejon, Johnny decided to drive the train. There was carload of GIs just behind the engine, and with them was a Sergeant of Military Police who arrested Pierpoint for conduct unbecoming. Johnny somehow convinced the man to at least inform me of the arrest, so I was surprised when a soldier I'd never seen before popped up at my seat to inform me that an MP NCO wished to see me in the forward car. I went with him.
Pierpoint was in tears; the cop was a self-righteous prick. I demanded Pierpoint be released into my custody. The MP refused. Nastily pulling rank, I told him it wasn't a request. The sergeant had no choice but to acquiesce - but told me not to leave the train at Seoul. He was obviously going to call for reinforcements and bust me, too.
The Three Stooges jumped ship from the wrong side of the train as soon as it pulled into Seoul. The MPs were scanning arriving passengers as they detrained on the opposite side of the car. We got away clean, and managed to hitchhike back to Changpari. As we strolled towards the Courtesy Patrol station, where we knew we could arrange a ride to Sitman, Johnny Pierpoint, who had been meek ever since I had saved him from the MP, suddenly yelled, "Bowling ball!!" and ran towards the door of a nearby bar, where, converting himself into a bowling ball, he rolled across the floor, knocking down about a dozen people and starting one hell of a fight. Leak shrugged and pitched in after him. I continued to the CP station alone.
* * * * *
Pierpoint and Lilly corresponded. Three months later, she showed up at one of our cycle break parties. I had often mused on our delightful trip to Pusan, and couldn't get over the many kindnesses shown us. I asked Lilly if there were any particular reason, or were all GIs treated so well in Pusan. Her answer startled me:
They had done it because we were north of the river risking our lives for their freedom. They did it because we were Imjin Scouts.