Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Witness to History

The Blue House (청와대 - Cheongwadae)
by somedragon2000 - http://flickr.com/photos/somedragon2000/126366876/
Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
I came out of a very deep sleep, slowly, ever so slowly. Seems that The Missus Herself was trying to wake me up.



You need to wake up...

"Um, huh, what is it? What's wrong?"

The President has been assassinated...

Sitting up quickly, "Who's President?"

The Korean President, Park Chung-Hee...

Ah crap!

With that bit of knowledge, a number of things went through my head, should I shave before I go to work? Do I need to go to work? What the Hell is going on and what happens next?

It was a Saturday morning in October in the Land of the Morning Calm. Truth be told, things were anything but calm on that particular morning.

It was 1979. I had been stationed in Korea since September of the previous year. We had a two month old baby (our first child who would grow up to be The Naviguesser) and we were living in Kunsan City (군산시), "on the economy," as they say. I was a young (26) Weapons System Control (WCS) mechanic at nearby Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea and life was good.

Though I had a line number for promotion to Staff Sergeant, I was still a three-stripe member of the E-4 Mafia. At the time I was called an E-4 Sergeant as opposed to an E-4 Senior Airman. Said lofty position being attained only just before leaving Okinawa back in '78. (E-4s nowadays are just Senior Airmen, they eliminated the E-4 Sergeant position a while back, I think while I was in Germany. I don't rightly recall as I was not asked to chime in on that idea. It made sense to me at the time to get rid of that title for an E-4.)

Now I had been looking forward to this assignment for quite some time. I'd been trying to get assigned to Korea since 1976. In fact, I had extended my 18-month tour on Okinawa twice, six months each time, in order to get this assignment.

Of course, there's that old saying "Be careful what you wish for..."

So there I was*, something like 15 minutes flying time south of the 38th Parallel, a member of one of the finest fighter wings to ever take to the skies, awakened from my normal Saturday rack time and faced with the distinct possibility that I might be about to partake of an actual shooting war.


This had occurred earlier in my Air Force career while assigned to the second best fighter wing to ever take to the skies on the fair isle of Okinawa (沖縄県). That "almost got to take part in a shooting war" was in August of 1976. I'd been in the Air Force all of fifteen months and on Okinawa for all of seven months. I was still fairly inexperienced at my chosen profession when we were recalled to duty in the wee hours of Thursday, August 19th.

Upon reporting for duty, we were informed that two U.S. Army officers had been murdered by the North Korean Army in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ, roughly the 38th Parallel). I always remember this as the Tree Cutting Incident which you can read about here. I won't go into the details.

After hearing one of our superiors telling us why we were recalled, one of the E-4 Sergeants in the room stated, "Oh boy, we're going to war!", in a rather jocular tone. The rest of us all turned and stared at him. I heard at least one reference to fire trucks and idiots (or something to that effect). When we faced front once more, our Tech Sergeant (Billy, a great leader, smoked unfiltered Pall Malls, uniform was starched to the point that if he ever died on duty, it would be a few days before he would actually fall over) had this look like Death come to dinner on his face, staring at the fool who offered up the "Oh boy."

"Do you understand what happens in a war, you asshole? People die. Their people, our people. They die. Do you understand that? Asshole. Now get the eff outta my briefing!"

Said idiot departed.

Within two days the 18th Tactical Fighter Wing had deployed two full squadrons of F-4 Phantoms up north to Korea.

That's right 48** F-4 Phantom II fighter bombers, each capable of carrying up to 18,650 pounds of weapons on nine external hard points.

Within a few more days we could have had another squadron's worth of old Double-Ugly on station and ready to kick some serious butt. Not to mention the multitude of Phantoms stationed in Korea and what the Navy always brings to the party in terms of aircraft carriers and such (back then we had battleships boys and girls, battleships!)

In the face of such force, the NORKs backed down, war was averted and life returned to "normal" on the Air Force's unsinkable aircraft carrier, Kadena Air Base.

To return to our story, there I was, three years and change later, on the brink of war. Again.

So, The Missus Herself had awakened me and brought me up to speed as regards current events. Not good. Not good at all. What better time for the NORKs to make trouble and perhaps launch themselves on their oft stated mission of reuniting the Korean peninsula?

With the government of the Republic of Korea (ROK) in disarray, it might be the break the a-holes to the north of the DMZ were looking for.

Later, we found out that a number of ROK army units had actually pulled out of their positions on the DMZ and moved south to the capital of Seoul, ya know, just in case. It looked and smelled like a coup was in progress. Who could blame them?

Excepting of course the guys left behind who had to hastily fill those vacated gaps. Because...

NORK1: "Hey Comrade Chong!"

NORK2: "What is it Comrade Kim?"

NORK1: "You know those running dog lackies of the Imperialist Westerners who normally man that outpost across the way?"

NORK2: "What about those capitalist stooges and enemies of the Proletariat?"

NORK1: "Well, they've boogied, pissed off, headed South."

NORK2: "Seriously, Comrade Chong?"

NORK1: "Seriously, Comrade Kim?"

NORK2: "Say let's ask Commissar Moon what we should do. Now might be a good time to liberate the oppressed members of the working classes down in the South!"

Of course, that last bit was all artistic license. In real life there would have been invocations of how wonderful the North was, yada, yada.

Bottom line though is that nothing happened.

I did get dressed in full Air Force battle rattle (think steel pot and flak vest, nothing to menace the enemy with other than grimaces and fist shaking) and headed on into work.

A large number of Korean soldiery were present on the streets of our fair city. Mostly manning sand-bagged machine gun emplacements presenting very war-like faces at the passers-by. (And trust me, no one can make a war face better than a Korean. Ask the Viet Cong, they were terrified of the Koreans. Hell, I'm married to one, I'm terrified of angry Koreans.)

I also noted a larger police presence than I was used to. Every intersection had a policeman. Armed with a submachine gun. Again, sporting a look suggesting that trouble would be met with deadly force. So move along, nothing to see here!

We spent the day in our shop, wondering what was going to happen next. We had no aircraft in our hangar with a radar requiring calibration, nor did the flightline weenies require our assistance in getting our jets ready to go anywhere.

So yes, the pinochle deck came out. (Don't tell the lieutenant!)

During our "vigil" (war or no war) one of our number mentioned, "Jeepers, isn't Dave up in Seoul this weekend, getting married?"

Sure enough, Dave was in the capital for his nuptials.

When he returned (once travel was again permitted) he told us of his honeymoon.

There were tanks in the streets.


Along with the ubiquitous machine gun emplacements. Can't have a coup without tanks and machine guns can you?

Things settled down. Life returned to "normal" at Kunsan Air Base, home of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, the mighty Wolf Pack.***

Though I never saw a shooting war, the VFW says that I'm a "war veteran" based on my assignment to Korea. (There was never a peace treaty after the events of 1950 to 1953, just an armistice. Technically the two Korea's remain "at war.")

The state of Rhode Island also says that I'm a "war veteran." My license plate says so, therefore it must be true. Right?

Not hardly. I was on active duty for Grenada, Desert Storm and that whole Balkans thing. Closest I got to any of it was Germany.

But I was never really in harm's way. Though two of our guys from the 8th were gunned down by some kind of Filipino commie in Angeles City, the Phillipines, I have never heard a shot fired in anger myself.

So I don't consider myself a war veteran.

Just a witness to history.

As it were...

*Check any of Juvat's posts for an explanation of what that phrase implies.
**Until 1992, the Air Force predominantly organized its active fighter aircraft in wings of three squadrons, with 24 combat aircraft in each squadron. (Source)
***That would be the best fighter wing to ever take to the skies. Others might disagree. But bear in mind, the 8th was once commanded by Robin Olds. 'Nuff said.

NORK is, of course, an acronym for NORth Korean.


  1. I also hold "war veteran" status for serving in Berlin, FRG '77 - '79. Never heard a shot fired in anger either. I'd be embarrassed to show up at the VFW claiming war veteran status.

    1. Yeah, I get that.

      My Dad served in Berlin as well, 1946 to 1949.

  2. So I don't consider myself a war veteran.

    Another thing we have in common. I was in for the duration of the Vietnam Unpleasantness (from before the Gulf of Tonkin incident to watching the choppers lift off of rooftops in Saigon, and beyond) and never got close to the war zone until hostilities were over. I never understood just how in the Hell THAT happened, especially since I had an open volunteer statement in the system from '66 to '68. I withdrew that statement when SN2 was born.

    That said, I HAVE seen "tanks in the street" on a few occasions, most recently in Moscow in September of 1993.

    1. Yes, I remember you did a rerun just recently in which you mentioned that you were in Moscow for EDS. I recall they pulled you folks out before the tanks started shooting.

  3. If you have a National Defense ribbon are you a "war veteran"?

    Closest i got to that was the Yom Kipper War - 1973 - I think the entire US military alert was on high alert.

    1. No, the National Defense Ribbon doesn't qualify you as a war veteran. Finish boot camp successfully or get commissioned, wham-o, you get to wear the NDR.

      According to the VFW, if you have received a campaign medal for overseas service; have served 30 consecutive or 60 non-consecutive days in Korea; or have ever received hostile fire or imminent danger pay, then you're eligible to join the VFW. Service in Berlin also counts towards being eligible (see Knucklehead's comment above).

      I have three kids, one veteran of the Navy, two still on Active Duty. All three wear the NDR (I wasn't eligible for that until Desert Storm). The two oldest (The Naviguesser and The Nuke) both have campaign medals for overseas service (GWOT). The youngest doesn't consider herself a "war veteran". Only The Naviguesser has ever heard shots fired in anger (opening salvo of Tomahawks during Gulf War 2.0).

      The two oldest are considered "war veterans" (and rightly so) The WSO doesn't qualify, though her husband Big Time does. In fact, he has done two combat tours in the friendly skies of Afghanistan off of the Big "E".

  4. I remember the 1976 Panmunjom tree cutting episode. I was on the Midway and we had just pulled into Yokosuka. They put us on alert long enough to load supplies, restricted everyone to 4 hour on base liberty, and let dependents aboard until we got our sailing orders. Left within 12 hours for a speed run to Korea and damn near shot down a Japanese reporter who chartered a plane to take photos of us. Of course, we still had 5" 54 cal. AA guns at the time, so even a Cessna would have had a fair chance had we opened fire... As soon as we got within range we commenced 32 days of Alpha strikes on Nightmare Range. We assumed it was showing the flag (loudly), although I heard later that there may have been some tunnels whose use we wanted discouraged. Even our tankers (A-6's with buddy stores) had ordinance on them going out.

    1. Wow, small world Pogue.

      I had forgotten that MIDWAY was out there.

      Scary days those were!

    2. Yeah, plenty scary. I found a picture of that A-6 tanker and put it over on my Air Pogue site if you want to check it out.

    3. Great write-up Pogue. That A-6 is definitely loaded for bear. The Navy did bring a lot of bang to that party.

      We Air Force types were happy knowing there was a carrier "out there."

  5. I remember that incident in Korea. Those people are nuts.

    Buck - you & I have something in common. I have had to explain to people that yes, I was in during Vietnam but no, never sent there. Now out of my class of 35 at Ft Bliss (radar operator; Air Defense) 30 of them were sent to Korea and 5 of us...they didn't know what to do with us. In earlier years (late 60s) there were Army Air Defense units sent to Vietnam where i think they had Hawk batteries along the DMZ.

    OldAFSarge - if I am not mistaken (which I am on occasion) I think the NDR is issued to all armed service members during a time of conflict.

    1. The NORKs are definitely a couple of fries short of a Happy Meal!

      You're right about the medal Bill. Here's what Wikipedia has to say. (And technically it's the National Defense Service Medal. I should have known better!)

      The National Defense Service Medal is a service medal of the United States Armed Forces established by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953. The medal was first intended to be a "blanket campaign medal" awarded to service members who served honorably during a designated time period of which a "national emergency" had been declared during a time of war or conflict. It may also be issued to active military members for any other period that the Secretary of Defense designates.

      The National Defense Service Medal is authorized for the following time periods:
      Korean War June 27, 1950 – July 27, 1954
      Vietnam War January 1, 1961 – August 14, 1974
      Persian Gulf War August 2, 1990 – November 30, 1995
      Global War on Terrorism September 11, 2001 – Present

  6. Pogue is right. We were up in Misawa when that went down... 'Bit' tense is right...

    1. Small world indeed!

      Tense was a good way to describe it.

  7. I showed up at the Kun about 6 weeks after President Park was assassinated. Hence the comment about "The war started, we lost, I'm a POW" I posted a while back. Sat a lot of alert, but never fired a shot in anger. I'm grateful for that, but a part of me wonders....

    1. Yup, just re-read that. It all fits now.

      I wonder too at times. But all things considered, I wouldn't change a thing.

  8. Oh, and by the way. Chant du Depart officially has some powerful MOJO. No measurable rain for a couple of months, I write a post about rain, and Voila' almost 2" overnight! I credit the Sarge!

  9. Touched a lot of bases with that one Sarge. The Blue House was a big "No Fly Zone" even for us fixed wing types out of Seoul AB. Probably was long before I got there and long after I left. One of our helicopter pilots of the female persuasion met and was dateing the CO of the Wolfpack at Kunsan. I took a lot of training flights on Friday/Sunday for delivery/pickup of one or the other at Kunsan/Seoul ABs. Like to think of my part having something to do with their subsequent marriage. And, back when Alemaster was a "budding" gunpilot, I put an awful lot of 2.75"FFAR and 7.62 minigun down for The Capital ROK Inf Div (Tiger Division) in another land of the not so peaceful morning sun.

    1. Small world. My oldest brother-in-law was a grunt in the ROK 9th Infantry Division, the White Horse (백마) Division.

      A good man, a damn fine man.

      Nice to know that you got the chance to play matchmaker. We always noted that if the CO was happy, we were happy.

    2. The White Horse were good but I really liked shooting for the Tigers. Those two infantry divisions along with the ROK Marines in I Corps scared the beejeezus out of the doobads, and rightfully so. True warriors who knew/know no quit. The gentleman who owns the shoe shop I patronize was explaining to me his duties in The Tiger Division. I stopped by later one day with my gun platoon patch (which he immediately recognized) and a Tiger Division patch. We're best buds now. regards, Alemaster

    3. The men of the White Horse spoke highly of the Tiger Division (맹호사단).

      Glad to hear you still have a connection with such fine troops Alemaster.

    4. In I-Corps, the ROK Marines were not exactly high on the WHAM mission. They basically laid waste to everything in their TAOR, lol!

      When a Lopez FAC out of DaNang, one of my roommates at the "FAC House" @ 31 Phan Boi Chau was a senior Cpt who had previously been a TACP gnd FAC with the White Horse Div in II Corps. He was in hog heaven, living in old French Officer's quarters with a shower in the room instead of in a stifling hot tent in the field with the White Horse crowd. "You haven't lived until you've smelled kimchee after its been fermenting all day in 120 degree heat" he said, lol.

    5. Kimchee, fermenting in 120 degree heat?

      Yummy, where can I get some?

  10. My tense moment was when Kennedy was killed. Engineer AIT at Ft Leonard Wood. The rumors were wild. Our cadre didn't know anymore than us; just what came over the transistor radios tuned to the St. Louis stations.

    1. I remember those days well, I can only imagine what that must have been like while on active duty.

  11. Tense moments for me were during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
    At Pearl we were on two hour standby to get underway.

    1. I remember those days as well. Being in grade school it was all a bit over my head.

      My Dad's worry about the situation told me all I needed to know.

      Scary times.

  12. The height of the Cuban missile crisis came during Homecoming my freshman year at LSU. We were all busy building "house decks" (my fraternity PHi Delta Theta won 1st prize, btw) but the DKEs were the most practical. They built a bomb shelter out of beer-case cartons with the caption: "To Hell with Homecoming, we're building a bomb shelter!" Ps: They had a life-size cardboard cut-out of the "Hey Mabel! Black label!" fame holding a beer on a raised beer tray standing in the entrance, beckoning lol (Remember that ad campaign?)

    1. Heh, Mabel - Black Label. They have some of those old ads on YouTube. I remember those from when I couldn't have a beer and didn't want one (i.e. I was pretty young). Thanks for the memories Virgil.

  13. I love your history lessons. They are especially magnificent when you are in the midst of them. Really gripping read, and thanks for sharing it with me.


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