Return to the Frozen Chosun Korean Travelogue 2003 By George Bratina
RETURN TO THE FROZEN CHOSUN
KOREAN TRAVELOGUE 2003
BY GEORGE BRATINA
I made it to the DMZ, but even if I had not, my trip to Korea was all for which anyone could have asked. I was impressed with the advances that Korea has made - it is not a Third World Country in any sense.
I had purchased a digital camera and had taken a number of pictures. Unfortunately I put it down for a moment when I was using a cash machine on Yongson. When I tried to pick it up, it wasn't there any more, so I guess some things haven't changed. I had all of my DMZ pictures on it, so they were lost. However, my daughter-in-law had taken a number of pictures as well, so I will be passing them on to you. She and my son plan on taking a DMZ tour before they PCS back to the States, and they promised to try to get some more pictures at that time. I will be forward them on when I receive them.
From the beginning, we landed at the new airport at Inchon. It is as fine and modern a facility as you can imagine. I have been through most of the major U.S. airports at one time or another, and Inchon is better than most. I was to find this was typical of the whole country.
When I was assigned to Korea in 1963, I recall leaving Ascom City and going up to the DMZ. Once you got out of Seoul, MSR 1 was a dirt road. This has totally changed, in fact to the point that I failed to recognize the road up to the DMZ. For that matter, our son is assigned to Tague, and we traveled almost from Pusan to the DMZ. As a result I got to see the new Korean highway system which spans the country. It is a totally modern highway that reminds me of the German Autobahns, or our best coast-to-coast systems. Wide three and four lane highways connect all of the major cities, and they are filled with traffic that includes heavy trucks and modern autos from every country.. Traffic was continuous and heavy by any standard.
I would have thought that because of problems with space, large automobiles would have been few and far between. That isn't so. One doesn't see as many pickup trucks as you would in the States, but SUV's and vans are common and just as large as they are in the States. The one concession seems to be a mirror placed on the outside of the rear of the vehicle, pointing down, so that you can watch the rear bumper of the vehicle as it is being parked. As you can well imagine parking places are at a premium, and these vehicles have to be tucked into some tight spots.
I had some pictures of Munsan, which went with the camera. We stopped at a war memorial just outside of the outskirts of the city, because that is what it is now. A city with high rise apartments going up perhaps thirty or forty stories. The last time I drove through Munsan, it was mostly a collection of farm houses; in fact I don't recall any buildings over two stories. I didn't ask my son to drive into Musan, because it was obvious that wasn't a thing that I was going to recognize. (I went there quite regularly when I was with the S-2 shop, because that is where the MI unit was located. I will make a wild guess and estimate the population at over 50,000, perhaps closer to a 100,000.
As we drove through the country side I kept looking for the old-style houses. They weren't there. You still see the graves on the hillsides, but now even the farming communities have all new homes that resemble those you would find in any middle class town in the U.S. The difference is that they appear to be 2/3rds or 3/4ths of the size of the U.S. home of the same design.
Seoul is grown beyond anything I could have imagined. I think this is one of the reasons that nothing looked familiar. We started driving west, along the Han River. Then at the Olympic Stadium we went north on what is now listed on maps as Highway 1. However, we stayed in an urban area most of the way. I have no idea at what point we actually got onto the highway, but it wasn't too far south of Musan. This road follows what I believe is the Kae Song Corridor, which is the only flat route into or out of South Korea. As we drove up to the DMZ, there were periodic road blocks consisting of immense blocks of cement suspended over the road by four pillars. My son explained they were built to be dropped into the road to block traffic in the event of an invasion by North Korea.
I kept looking for Charlie Block, but it never materialized. After we returned to Seoul, I got the map out and looked at the route in some detail. Our old MSR 1 isn't the same as the highway we followed to the new bridge across the Imjin River, which is one reason I was disoriented. The old route ends up at a big theme park, which is just south of old Freedom Bridge. It is in the area of what I think we used to call "Last Chance."
Traffic thinned out as we got to the new bridge. If I remember correctly, it is a four, possibly six lane wide bridge spanning the Imjin about a mile east of old Freedom Bridge. Right now it has a series of cement blocks which force a person to weave from lane to lane, effectively reducing the traffic to a slow, one lane pace in either direction. We had our ID cards checked at both ends, and were then allowed to cross into the DMZ.
All of the roads north of the Imjin are also paved, which was the first surprise. We drove over the bridge and turned left (West). We drove about half a mile and came to what is now called Camp Greaves on the south side of the road. This is the old Charlie Troop post. We came back to it, and I'll describe it in more detail. However, at this point we continued on past the old Hqs Troop area and went on to the north end of what used to be Freedom Bridge.
Here I have a couple of pictures. The old Freedom Bridge that we know is gone, and in its place is a new "Reunification Bridge." This a modern railroad bridge, with rails extending to north and to a large, unused train terminal to the north-east of the bridge.
The north end of this bridge is much larger than that of the old bridge that we used. It is graded up on both sides, and well into the woods that used to come down all the way to the edge of the road. I think I stood on about the area of the old Demo Shack, but it is so changed that I couldn't be positive of anything. The old bridge, that we knew, has been demolished, and the only thing remaining are some of the abutments sticking out of the water, running to the east side of the new bridge.
Looking to the north there was a road running along side the new railroad tracks. I took a picture of a bridge over the road and tracks, and we drove past it to the north. I believe we got as far as the area where the old train and railroad cars used to lay; however, they are apparently long gone. It was something that I was really looking forward to seeing, because I vividly remember patrolling past them on the old tracks, and walking around mines set into the tracks themselves.
Then we drove back to the old Troop areas. What used to be Headquarters Troop is now a fenced off Korean military unit. We could look into it, but that was all. I did not remember a single building now in that area - all of the old Quonset-type hootches are apparently long gone.
The mess hall and all of the NCO hootches above it were gone as was the row of hootches that began with the Medics Bldg. and ended up with the Commo Barracks. (Of course they still haven't been able to haul all of the beer cans away from behind the Medics hootch.) There used to be a curved driveway that went in from of the EM hootches, across the front of the mess hall, and then curved back West in front of the latrine/shower, around in front of the motor pool, and then back onto the road.
This road is gone, and the area in front of the hootches is a soccer court. (I watched some Korean soldiers playing on the court. They were exactly as I remember them from Vietnam, well disciplined and in good physical condition.) The buildings now there are all of a permanent variety. The NCO Club and the water tower that used to be on top of the hill, between Hqs. Troop and A Troop, are gone. The top of the hill is wooded over, and there is no sign that either of them ever existed..
We then drove back East, and turned left, to drive past the old A Troop area. There are three grown-over ravines, each of which could have been where A Troop was located. However, the buildings are again long gone, and there is nothing remaining to indicate that this was ever a military compound. We drove up the road to the point where we saw the red triangle denoting a mined area, and then came back. We tried to drive up to the Guard Post where the DMZ briefings are given, but couldn't get in.
Then we drove back to Camp Greaves and were able to go onto the compound. Most of the buildings are new, having obviously been built since our days there. We drove up the hill to the area of the old Officer's Club over looking the river and the old Freedom Bridge area. This was an area that I was finally able to really recognize. The old Officer's club building is till standing and is now an "All Ranks Club." From it you can see the new bridge to the East and the old "Freedom Bridge" are to the West. Great view.
I don't know how many of you ever had a reason to go to the Officer's Club in the 50's and 60's, but back then it had a Russian machine gun and a Chinese field piece in the parking area in front of the building. The machine gun is gone, but the Chinese cannon is still there. Seeing it was like meeting an old friend, and that was when I finally realized that I was back in the area again.
We went down the hill to a hamburger stand and had lunch before heading back to Seoul. I talked briefly to a young Officer, who was stationed in the area. I asked him if he was familiar with the area on the hillside above Hqs. Troop. He said there was still a small bunker there, and I suspect it is the site of the old Commo bunker, where the switchboard used to be located. I would have loved to have gone there, but there was no possibility of that. I walked around the postm but couldn't identify many of the buildings. Possibly the Chapel is the same building, and perhaps the theater. I had some doubts regarding the theater, because while it is in the same general area, it seems to be set further back than I recall.
Camp Greaves is now manned by a unit of the 2nd ID, but it is an airborne unit. My understanding is that it will soon be moved south as part of a proposal to give the DMZ over totally to the South Koreans.
As you leave the old C Troop area and looked north, there is now a Korean community, including a church, on the other (north) side of the road. In fact all of rice paddies in the area are cleaned out and being farmed. Apparently there are now more communities of Koreans at different points in this sector. The hills are still heavily wooded, but the paddies are no longer overgrown. Since I remembered this area as devoid of all foreign nationals and a free-fire zone after dark, seeing these civilian homes there seemed surreal.
We then drove as far as the JSA, took a couple of pictures and came back. I think I saw the old B troop area, but couldn't be sure. I had hoped to see the 7th Cav area south of the river, but it would have meant quite a drive to get to the road by the amusement park. As a result, I never got there.
On our way back to Seoul, we traveled along the ImJin River to the Han. For perhaps 30 kilometers you could look across the river and see North Korea. At one point we were close enough to see a large city in the distance. The banks of the river have periodic posts and are lined with razor wire. In the road, between the north and south-bound lanes are fighting positions. Above the hills were there were South Korean troops stationed, these areas were blocked off with canvas screens, so that their movements couldn't be observed. We saw some artillery positions with guns in place, The South Korean Army mans these posts all along the river, and the hills above the highway also had positions ready to be manned. It is obvious that they are taking the situation seriously and are ready to react if the North Koreans ever decided to try to come south by this route.
I got to see three monuments dedicated to the Korean War. All three were impressive. There is a monument and museum on the edge of the Pusan Perimeter, which was excellent. There was a large collection of small arms and both modern and 1950's vintage armor from both sides.
Just outside of Munsan is a large monument dedicated to some individual Korean soldiers, including the "Ten Human Bombs," who sacrificed themselves. The most impressive is in Seoul. It is the finest war memorial I have ever seen in size and design. Outside is a collection of armor and aircraft from both sides. This is where the monument to the "Two Brothers" is located. (This represents a South Korean Officer meeting his brother, who was in the North Korean Army.) The major part of the memorial is a listing of the dead by groups. All of the American dead are listed under plaques by state. The Korean dead are grouped under those who died between 1945 and 1950, 1950 to 1953, Vietnam, and 1953 to the present. I looked for Sieller and Dessarts' names, but couldn't find them.
Anyway, this was the trip.. (We went on to Taiwan, where we spent almost two weeks visiting with relatives. That is a whole, different trip.) I have some pictures that I'll be sending on in the near future. I guess that my main thoughts are that I feel a great deal of pride in the fact that I was able to play a small part in the development of Korea into what it is today, a thriving Capitalistic and Democratic country.
For those who are interested, the issue of SARS is very efinately causing problems in the Far East. One thing that was very evident was the lack of passengers on the flights to and from Korea and Taiwan. On a couple of the legs, I would estimate the aircraft was less than 25% full. The SARS scare started just before we left. While we were in Korea the problem had yet to surface there, while Taiwan recognized the problem and had six or eight cases. Regardless, it was obvious that people were afraid to travel, and the lack of passengers reflected the problem. On the other hand it made for comfortable traveling, especially on on the trips in and out of Taiwan. It's hard to say how this problem will play out, before it's over. (We flew Spokane to Seattle, Seattle to Narita, Japan, from there to Seoul, Seoul to Taipei, and Taipei to Kaohsuing. The return was made using the same legs.)
On the Seoul to Kaohsuing trips and back we wore gauze masks. In fact the airlines were giving them out to anyone who wanted them, although we had our own. The attendents wore them all of the time, as did most of the personnel working in the airline terminals. I never saw any signs of problems, although I think everyone was really careful not to cough or sneeze, for fear of being stuffed through a window at 37,000 feet. Actually Korea and Taiwan still have fewer cases than Canada or the U.S. My concern was traveling on aircraft that had been to China, Hong Kong or Vietnam. I guess my boss is worried, because he told me not to come back to work until the 2nd of May.