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Veterans recall smells, cold of Korean War

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (June 25, 2010) -- War stinks. According to one veteran of the Korean War -- which started 60 years ago today -- it stinks specifically like coal and kimchi.

Richard Whittle stood June 23 before an audience at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington, D.C., to tell his story based on memories of the Korean War. He called his story "Coal Pile and Smellin' Kimchi."

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Whittle said he arrived in Pusan, Korea, Jan. 31, 1953. He was assigned then to a railroad unit in the engineering section.

"My job was to push coal in a pile as it was being unloaded," he said. "But that only lasted for a short time, until I learned to operate the crane. Then they gave me a crew of four and we worked seven days a week, around the clock, keeping the steam engines rolling, carrying supplies and troops to where needed."

At night, he said, North Koreans flew suicide missions overhead. "If they saw a light from anything below, they would drop a bomb in that area."

He said it was rumored the bombs were homemade and "no two were alike." And the planes, he said, weren't much better. "Their flights were a one-way trip, and when they ran out of gas they crashed," he said.

The armistice between the north and south was signed in July of that year, and Whittle said work at the rail yard increased after that, due to exchanging of prisoners of war and transporting of the wounded.

"The rail yard was full of steam engines, hissing and smoking and being parked for hours," he said. The smell of the trains, along with the existing smell from the coal piles and the native food, kimchi, "was something to behold."

"They had this one item they boiled, fried and stewed -- it was eaten from the cradle to grave," Whittle said. "Once it was cooked, it had a garlic-like smell. I don't like garlic."

The smell was everywhere, he said. "It really stinked. With all these odors, it's really something you will never forget."

Whittle's story was one of more than a dozen told on stage at the AFRH as part of a program called "Do You Remember." The program was produced by the Double Nickels Theatre Company. The program featured war-time stories read aloud by the former servicemembers themselves or by stand-ins. Their varied military experiences included stories from World War II, Vietnam and the Korean War.

William Tobin, also a Korean War veteran, was a Sailor aboard the USS Mt. McKinley in September 1950, when that ship sailed from Kobe, Japan to Inchon, South Korea. Also aboard the ship at the time was General of the Army Douglas MacArthur and his staff.

Tobin said he remembers gossip passed to him by the radio room aboard the ship.

"It seems that even though the crossing from Japan to Korea ... had been relatively quiet, our illustrious passenger -- five-star General of the Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur -- had been incapacitated by a case of sea sickness," Tobin said. "After hearing this we all felt a little better, by knowing that the omnipotent one, praised as a god by the Japanese who he helped after defeat, was in reality just like the rest of us -- human after all."

Another Korean War veteran, Richard W. Robinson, didn't get a chance to tell his story on stage, though he attended the presentation by his fellow servicemembers. Originally from Union City, N.J., Robinson retired from the Army as a sergeant major in 1971, after having enlisted in 1948.

He said his mother and father both died when he was young, leaving him without parents at just 16 years. As his two older brothers had gone off to serve in World War II, he stayed at home to take care of his younger sisters.

"When they came back, they took over -- I was sort of reckless, and I left school and went to join the Army," Robinson said. "My brother was my guardian and he signed the letter so I could get in."

At only 17 years old, Robinson was stationed at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, N.Y. He'd signed up in 1948 for a total of two years. But by 1950, the war with Korea was on and his enlistment was changed for him.

"With the war going on, they added another year to us," he said, adding that he took the opportunity to extend his enlistment even further -- to six years. He also took a transfer to Camp Stoneman, Calif., where he worked as a clerk processing Soldiers back from the Pacific theater.

In February 1952, he found himself in Korea, first at a "repo depot," or replacement depot, in Tageu. He said at the depot, they fell out every morning and the sergeant there would hand out details.

"One morning we fell out and he said 'can any of you guys type'" Robinson said. "Four of us stuck our hands up."

It turns out, the personnel staff at 8th Army headquarters, rear, was behind on their paperwork and needed help.

"Who wanted to go up on the front?" Robinson said. He eventually secured a permanent position with the 8th Army HQ. One that eventually took him to Seoul. There he worked nights at the Adjutant General's classified message center.

Life in Seoul at the time isn't what it is for Soldiers now, but it wasn't as bad as what Soldiers had at the front line, Robinson said. With a general as the commander of their unit, he said, living there was good. "We had a cot. And with the houseboy, we got local mattresses and sheets and hot water and hot food," he said.

A friend of Robinson's served with the 25th Division on the front lines, and paid him a visit once during his stay in Seoul.

"He came down and visited me," Robinson said. "He got a three-day pass. When he came down he looked like -- in WWII they had these cartoons 'Willy and Joe' -- they looked like bums, they were dirty, they needed a shave. Well my friend came off the line. That's the way he was. He'd been wearing the same clothes for six months. Never had a hot shower. They did all their things in the field."

While Robinson admits he had it relatively easy in Seoul, he did say he had one brush with death.

"We used to get these new recruits, and when they came in they were issued live ammunition and M1s. You had these guys that put the clip in and would forget to clear their weapons," he said. Robinson said he and the new guy rode together one day on their way to lunch. "We're riding along in the jeep, and all of the sudden: bang! The bullet went over my head. But if he'd been an inch or two down, I wouldn't be here today."

Raymond Smith chose not to watch the presentation by the other servicemembers, but came down after to greet them and have refreshments. He said he'd heard all the war stories before, though he shared some of his own insights about Korea.

Smith joined the Army in 1950 and served in the 25th Division, 21st Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion. He said before he went to Korea, he learned about the country from his buddy, a Marine. But when he got there, he said, he was ill-prepared.

"This isn't real!" he said. "The swamps and the muskrats, and the rats and the cold weather and the freezing my butt off -- I didn't like it."

Smith, from Oneida, N.Y., served first as a halftrack driver and then as a gunner, shooting quad-.50s.

"We would go out on patrol with the 27th Wolfhounds," he said. "We were their support unit and they were our support unit. When the enemy (would) come over the hills, we'd shoot them down."

What he remembers about Korea, he said, is the cold weather.

"There wasn't nothing to see in 1950's Korea; it was all shelled out," he said. "It was demolished. And up on the border, there was nothing but cold and freezing and you were cold all the time. It's too cold when you can't pull the bolt on the .50-cal to fire -- and you stand out there with a one-gallon tin can half full of gas and 10 guys are standing around it trying to keep warm."

They weren't the only ones who were cold, either, Smith said.

"Half mile away is the enemy -- doing the same damn thing," he said. "And nobody's shooting at anybody because it's too damn cold."

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