Preface to William Roskey's MUFFLED SHOTS
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OLD KOREA HANDS WILL KNOW THAT THERE IS not now, nor has there ever been, an 18th Infantry Division in the Eighth Army. The 157th Military Intelligence Battalion as well as the 29th Meteorological Observation Group are likewise fictitious, as are the camps named. And although there are many such hills in Korea, the one in this story exists only in the author's mind. The characters are entirely fictitious as are the incidents that are related.
What is real is this: Since June 25, 1950, American soldiers have been fighting in Korea. Even now, the peace talks at Panmunjom continue and the killing and maiming continue. This novel will, it is hoped, give the reader an idea of what it was like to serve on the Korean DMZ in the latter half of the 1960s.
Few people know how the North Koreans, evidently heartened and emboldened by the successes of their friends, the North Vietnamese, began to step up their attacks on South Korean and American positions along the DMZ in those years. For years before, they had initiated few exchanges of fire on the line, and the infiltrators they had sent across were primarily on intelligence and reconnaissance missions. Then, quite suddenly, in the fall of 1966, things got hot fast. Perhaps the primary cause was the North Koreans' desire to see whether the United States, in light of its increasing military activity in Vietnam, was really prepared or determined to defend both South Korea and South Vietnam at the same time.
For whatever reasons, I saw the situation on the line get bad in late fall of 1966 and then grow increasingly worse in 1967. Only years later, long after I returned to the United States, did I come across an old 1967 United Nations report on Korean truce violations, and discover how dramatic the surge had been numerically; the only measure I had had to go by was the surge in my adrenal gland secretions. The UN had numbers. In 1966, the UN report states, there were nineteen exchanges of gunfire on the line and eleven below it, producing sixty-four U.S. and South Korean Army casualties. However, from January 1 through October 18 of 1967, there were 212 exchanges of fire, resulting in 401 UN and South Korean Army casualties.
The UN Report on Truce Violations also lists ROK National Police and civilian casualties, and goes on to say, "The North Korean infiltration into the Demilitarized Zone and the interior of the Republic of Korea, apart from causing heavy human casualties, has involved in every case violations of the letter and/or spirit of the Armistice Agreement of 1953," and specifically cites "North Korea's failure to respect the integrity of the territory of the Demilitarized Zone and the interior of the Republic of Korea," saying that such behavior "constitutes a violation of paragraph 7 of the Armistice Agreement." I am certain that when this report was read into the record at Panmunjom, the North Korean representative was unimpressed. He probably made a great show of stifling a yawn, which is more than the America people back home did.
This book is dedicated to the men of the United States Army who manned that lonely line, to those who stood and delivered at a time when no one except the beleaguered people of South Korea cared. To the men who convinced the North Koreans and the Communist world that the United States would not write off Korea because of the events transpiring in Vietnam. This book is dedicated to the widows, children, parents, and brothers and sisters of those who died there during the late sixties. Be proud of their unsung sacrifices, because with no support from their countrymen, with aging equipment, and with a great deal of courage, they turned back the North Korean probes decisively, demonstrating that North Korea would pay a heavy price in any second invasion. Things quieted down quite a bit in the mid-seventies, although even today sporadic firefights break out. But over forty million South Koreans live in freedom today in large part because some brave men from exotic places like Sioux City, Boston, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Newark, and Albuquerque, made a stand. Men who fought without counting the cost, who fought because they had a vision of something bigger than themselves. They were all heroes, every one.
FOR YEARS, TOO MANY YEARS, I TRIED TO WRITE about a certain hill in Korea. About what it was like to go up that hill, what it was like to come down it, and about what happened in between. About the high toll it exacted. It's important to me because, in a very real way, I've never left the hill. Every shrub and trench, every sandbag and pebble and foxhole, every rusted strand of barbed wire is indelibly etched on my brain as clearly and as crisply as any image on the finest and most intricate lithographic plate. I return to the hill still in nightmares, which have mercifully become less frequent (if no less vivid) as the years have gone by. I wake in a start from the sounds of ghostly gunfire to reach for a rifle that isn't there. That hasn't been there for a long time. I wake suddenly to find myself a middle-aged man in a warm bed in a comfortable suburban community half a world and many years away from an unknown hill in a remote mountainous part of Korea that no one knows of or cares about
You see, I was working on the belief that if I could somehow capture the experience in words, the resulting catharsis would produce an inner peace, and I wouldn't , ever have to return to the hill again. Not even in my dreams. So I tried; I tried it from every aspect. I wrote in the manner of the impersonal, detached third-person observer. I also spilled out my guts in an emotional stream of consciousness, describing the hill in almost hallucinatory anthropopathic terms as an ancient, evil, malevolent living Thing, as a hulking, brooding Presence lusting after blood like a huge, greedy, and insatiable vampire ~ sponge beneath my feet.
I wrote about the geology of the hill and its topography, its shape, elevation, and composition, about its flora and fauna. I talked about how it looked under a blistering summer sun, as well as under a luminous Oriental moon surrounded by thousands of sparkling stars. I wrote about what it was like to be on the hill when driving, seemingly never-ending sheets of monsoon rains poured out from boiling, ugly pewter skies. I wrote about how it was in the winter, when ice and snow were bad, but not half as bad as the bitter freezing winds that whipped down through the mountains from Manchuria and from Siberia. About how the winds howled through the frozen valleys like crazed banshees come to claim the spirits of the dead. I wrote countless pages about how the hill looked and sounded and smelled, and even about how it felt beneath my combat boots. And all of that writing was a waste of time. I threw each page away almost as soon as I'd finished it. None of it hit the mark, and I never quite knew why. Now I know, it has taken me all these years to realize that the story I've tried to tell is not the story of a hill at all. It is a story about a group of men.
It's a story about a group of young men who subsisted on a diet which consisted chiefly of black coffee, blacker humor, and adrenalin, and who grew old very quickly. It's
a story of skylarking, adventuresome, and supremely confident American boys who were transformed into cynical veterans with tired and wary eyes, who counted days and hours, and who believed in no one and who trusted no one except each other. We didn't trust the North Korean Army facing us, and, after a time, trusted in no army and no government including our own. Neither, as a general rule, did we trust any civilians of any nationality - particularly politicians and journalists. We were a small group, thirty-five in all, and believed without question that the rest of the inhabitants of the world fell into two categories: those who wanted to see us dead and were actively working toward that end, and those who didn't care, including our own countrymen back home and the U.S. Army Pacific. That's drawing the lines starkly by anyone's standards, but the irony is that when I look back now, as an older and more mature man with the 20/20 hindsight that the passage of time confers, I can see that those youthful notions of ours were essentially correct.
All our dreams and ambitions coalesced into a single common goal-to survive. That was the grim resolve that kept everyone going. The readiness, the determination to do whatever it took, including killing as many people as necessary in order to get home again in one piece. While I was there, the 151-mile line, which stretched from coast to coast across the Korean peninsula and which had been relatively quiet for years, began to heat up. The firefights which periodically erupted were sudden, brutal, and deadly, but remained short and, although the frequency of the firefights began to increase dramatically, rarely involved any units above squad level. The casualties were still considered to be in the acceptable range by both Eastern and Western military planners. The U.S. Army's chief headache was finding a way to explain to the men who were being shot at, as well as to the families and Congressional representatives of these
men, why they weren't receiving combat pay. It was especially difficult to explain to widows that their husbands hadn't been in combat when they'd been shot. Men were receiving Purple Hearts and decorations for valor. Some men were even being shipped home in boxes, but the Army said that the line was no longer a combat zone. Look, the Army said to irate soldiers, families, and Congressionals, let's be reasonable about this. We have more than fifty thousand men in Korea. Not all of them are being shot at on a regular basis, and not all of them are even on the line. Many are far to the south and never hear a single shot fired. We cannot countenance paying all fifty thousand men an extra $55 a month under these circumstances, but we do want to be fair about this. Therefore, we decree that henceforth any man shot or killed in hostile action will be considered to have been in combat for that month, and he or his widow or other beneficiary will receive the sum of $55. Should a man be wounded twice, he will receive $110 if the wounds are sustained in separate months. If three times. . . and so on.
Now even in those days, $55 was not exactly a princely sum. And we, soldiers of the wealthiest nation on the planet, could not help but feel that our country was not only being miserly, but also a little irrational. The absurdity was in the best tradition of Joseph Heller: A thousand may fall to your right and a thousand may fall to your left, but unless you fall, you don't get the fifty-five bucks. One night, as a running firefight between North Korean infiltrators and South Korean troops began to drift toward us, I took up a position to give covering fire with my M-60 machine gun, and I wondered in a somewhat detached fashion which of us or our survivors would be receiving checks for $55. To the Army's credit, however, this policy only remained in effect for less than a year. A few months after I had returned to the United
States, I was told that the Army had extended combat pay to all men who served north of the Imjin River. This was a far more equitable resolution of the problem, and I don't know why they hadn't thought of that in the first place.
The firefights were discussed virtually every day at Panmunjom. "At 0207 hours this morning," one of the United Nations negotiators might say for example, "the cease fire agreement was once again violated by the North Korean Army, when it ambushed a South Korean Army patrol near Kumhwa. Four members of the patrol were killed and three were wounded. The United Nations Command demands an immediate cessation of such irresponsible and hostile acts, along with a formal apology and written assurance that there will be no repetition of such incidents." Whereupon the North Korean negotiator would customarily respond with something like: "At 0210 hours this morning, soldiers of the puppet South Korean Army wantonly attacked a small unit of the Army of the People's Democratic Republic of Korea in the DMZ north of Kumhwa. This cowardly attack by the lackies of the imperialistic running dogs of Wall Street was heroically beaten back, and serves as but one more incident to add to the now many hundreds of times that the U.S. warmongers and their stooges have endangered world peace and earned the just affront of all freedom and peace-loving peoples throughout the civilized world." And so another routine day would begin at Panmunjom.
Firefights were one thing, but the specter of another full scale invasion quite another. The fear of that is something we lived with every day for more than a year. The North Koreans had done an excellent job of it. years before on 25 June 1950, when they'd sent ten crack infantry divisions and 150 nearly invincible Russian T-34 tanks, along with numerous other supporting units hurtling across the 38th parallel under a curtain of intensive and highly accurate artillery fire. Three days later they
entered Seoul, far to the south. They had been threatening to do it again ever since, and we had no reason to doubt them. The Communists are serious about such things, and they had all the necessary men and materiel massed on the line ready to jump off at a moment's notice or sooner. Radio Pyongyang told us they were ready, willing, and more than able to do the job. North Korean propaganda leaflets dropped on us said the same thing, and twin twenty-five-foot-diameter North Korean propaganda speakers on one of the hills facing us were also continually blaring that our end was at hand. If that invasion materialized, all of us on that hill would die and we knew it.
This then was the atmosphere of day-to-day life on the hill. Each of us shared in this, but each man also had certain individual experiences, obviously important or apparently trivial, that stood out in high relief on the lobes of his brain in a very personal way. One of mine has to do with an enormous rat who had the effrontery to bother me as I tried to eat lunch, and this was in broad daylight. Enraged by his audacity, I snatched up my rifle and whirled around, kicking him away from my leg. Despite his monumental arrogance, my explosion of movement startled him and he took off. Insane with fury, I charged after him, vowing to chase him all the way across the DMZ, through all of North Korea, and into Manchuria if necessary. I think I would have too, had he not eluded me with nimble footwork and some lightning turns. He disappeared before I could get off a single shot.
Another personal experience has to do with a boot. Two of the men went down to the northeastern base of the hill to explore the scene of an old firefight. One returned with a stick grenade of either North Korean or Chinese manufacture; I couldn't tell which. The other returned with a combat boot. The boot was American made and contained a partially decomposed foot. I had
seen dead men before as well as parts of dead men, but I looked at that boot and at that foot and felt a deep ineffable sorrow wash over me. A sorrow I still feel. A sorrow I cannot find words for.
My buddies and I physically left the hill many years ago. None of us has kept in touch, although we were all as close as the very closest of brothers then. Even closer, because we entrusted each other with our lives, and I don't think you can trust anyone more than that. Like brothers, we fought among each other now and then, and some were closer than others. But we all stood by each other. We counted on each other, and, especially in the five-man teams we were further subdivided into, we got to know each other better than our own families knew us, and very possibly better than anyone would ever get to know us again. One would think that the tensile strength of the bond forged in this crucible would be of a toughness beyond imagination, and would last for a lifetime. But that isn't what happened. When it was time to go, we simply walked away. I was reminded of the last three sentences of Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat: "Danny's friends still stood looking at the smoking ruin. They looked at one another strangely, and then back to the burned house. And after a while they turned and walked slowly away, and no two walked together."
We wanted to, or said we wanted to, or thought we wanted to leave the hill behind forever. And I guess we all figured that one couldn't do that without severing the bond that held us together, so we did. We did everything we could to put the hill behind us, yet it stubbornly remains a part of us. I know that I've never really left the hill, and I know that, wherever they may be, none of the others have left it either. For the hill is not only the stuff of which nightmares are made, but it is also the backdrop of a number of priceless and irreplaceable memories. Of a shared cigarette or a shared confidence on a warm and
quiet Asian summer night. Of raucous song fueled by a couple of bottles of forbidden whiskey. Of the nicknames we gave each other, which became more real to us than the names stamped on our dog tags. Of the elaborate practical jokes we played on each other and the readiness" to help each other in so many ways, from lending money, to covering for the other guy, to just listening.
It has taken me all these years to realize that, deep down where we really live, we remain on the hill because we want to. We have become confused and depressed and return to it in nightmares because we've been conning, or, more precisely, because we've been trying to con ourselves. We refuse to believe or to admit that there's a part of us that deplores our transformation from lean and hard twenty-year-old warriors living on the edge to graying overweight middle-aged men computing second mortgage payments and our future retirement annuities. There's a part in each of us, however repressed it may be, that wants to return to the only place where many of us felt good about ourselves, and, more importantly, where the people around us cared about us. The common bond we shared was more than friendship, more than camaraderie, more than team spirit or mutual respect. I realize now that it was love, although none of us would ever have thought of that word to describe it at the time, and, if he had, he wouldn't have used it. But what is love? The Expert, Jesus of Nazareth, said, "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."
Wherever and whenever veterans of any war or hostile action meet, there are the stories. The unarmed medic who dashes out under heavy enemy fire to retrieve a fallen comrade and pulls or carries him back to safety. The man who, already wounded, volunteers to act as a rear guard to cover his buddies' withdrawal. The helicopter pilot flying his slow and clumsy bird-into impossibly
intense enemy fire to rescue a downed airman, while other men above in jet fighters frantically run interference. The man who throws himself on a hand grenade to save his friends. The hungry man who shares his starvation rations with a fellow POW. The man who undergoes torture rather than give the enemy valuable information that could be used against his comrades still in the field. The men who stubbornly refuse to yield a position although they are hopelessly surrounded and outnumbered, simply to buy time for others. These stories and many others are so familiar that they have become commonplace. Admiral Chester Nimitz described the battle for Iwo Jima as a place where "uncommon valor was a common virtue." But that description could just as easily be applied to many battlefields and many wars.
And men don't exhibit "uncommon valor" for scraps of metal and ribbon to pin to their uniforms. They don't do it for the couple of hundred bucks a month they're paid. They don't do it because they want promotions or because they're afraid of court-martial. When the chips are really down, they don't even do it for the Constitution of the United States. That may be why they enlist, but it isn't why they become heroes. When the chips are down, they do it for each other.
So we move through the rest of our lives with a vague disquietude. We stare unseeingly out the window as the subway goes racketing through a tunnel, or gaze absently across the plains at a sunset, feeling a loss we can't find words for. Wondering, perhaps subconsciously, who would be willing to make those kinds of sacrifices for us today. The other members of the car pool? The people we work with in the factory or in the office? The other people in the apartment building? The people we meet in church or in the local tavern? How about our own wives and children? Sadly, in many cases, perhaps not even them. For when we turned in our rifles, we turned
in something else. Something of incalculable value that we may never see again. There can be no gain without a loss, and this loss has created a vacuum deep within our very souls. It's a vacuum that cannot be filled with Monday night football or new cars or extramarital affairs or booze, and, even if it were possible to turn back the clock and return to our respective hills or ships or aircraft or tanks or foxholes to recapture that feeling that we lost, none of us would do it. Not even for a day, because the price is now what it was then - too high. Too high for a feeling anyway.
What then shall we do? Trying to forget it all, the good as well as the bad, doesn't work. Neither does the selective amnesia when we try to remember only the good. I know because I've tried that too. As for myself, I intend to stop trying to forget any of it. Rather than fighting, and have the hill come to me in nightmares, I'll go to it. I'll go to it in the daylight, fully awake, with my eyes wide open. I'll go to it unafraid, remembering it all, and sometimes I'll feel pride, sometimes sorrow, and sometimes I'll even laugh. I may never, will probably never, really come "home from the hill," but I need never fear it again either, and that makes all the difference in the world.