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Authors: John Birmingham

A Captain of the Gate

BOOK: A Captain of the Gate
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Then out spake brave Horatius, the Captain of the Gate, ‘To every man upon this earth

Death cometh soon or late.

And how can man die better

Than facing fearful odds,

For the ashes of his fathers,

And the temples of his Gods?'

Thomas Babington, first Baron Macauley.

Branch McKinnon exhaled, and with the hot, stale breath, went some of the tension cramping his arms and shoulders. Not that he
. That would have been impossible. But as he saw the end coming, with no chance of escape or redemption, he accepted it for the first time, and some of the fear and the strain of the last few weeks ebbed away.

He waited. The muzzle of his Thompson gun tracked the small group of North Koreans as they cautiously rounded the huge mound of burning rubble at the end of the street. It had been a seafood warehouse, and the stench of burned and rotting fish guts was vile enough to blot out the smells of the harbour city as it died around him. Spoiled meat, slumping piles of garbage alive with carpets of black flies, the unwashed bodies of his platoon, napalm smoke and festering wounds; the evil stink of the warehouse blotted them all out.

Pusan was dying. The little port city that had held out for so long would be overrun, probably in the next few hours, and his small band of brothers was sure to die with her. He was aware, without turning to look at them, of his men in the firing pit next to him. Nate Lundquist was hunkered down over the platoon's thirty cal. Jimbo Jamieson held a belt of shiny cartridges off the rubble and ash. He had another two boxes of ammo and, most precious of all, a spare barrel ready to go. Never taking his eyes off the enemy as they crept closer, he could still sense the rest of the guys. A patch of red hair peeking out beneath the curve of a helmet. The unnaturally straight line of a bayonet. A muted cough in the next foxhole, barely audible under the freight train scream of sixteen-inch shells arcing overhead. As long as they'd had the Navy at their backs McKinnon had felt there might be a small chance of surviving. But even the brightest optimist couldn't ignore how thin the cover from the big guns had grown.

Word was, two of the battlewagons had been sunk in the last six hours. McKinnon had heard more than a dozen different rumours as to how, but he paid none of them a scrap of notice. All that mattered was the stone cold reality of those Koreans, or maybe Chinese, down the end of the street. Even yesterday they'd have been blown to pieces miles away from the edge of town. Now they were right in the heart of
it. The docks, where the promised evac had descended into an unholy clusterfuck, were only two miles away. Thousands of people were trapped down there — Americans, Koreans, soldiers and civilians — none of them willing to wait anymore. When the captain had detailed Branch and his men as a rearguard he'd given it to them straight. Everything had gone to shit. Friendlies had turned their guns on each other. ROK forces had shot down women and children to clear a path to the barges for themselves. Marines, our marines, had poured fire on them in turn. It was, said the captain, an unmitigated horror. But what choice did they have? As long as they held the docks, they at least had to try and get some people away. They had to try.

McKinnon found himself shrugging again as he recalled the conversation. The captain hadn't bothered to insult him by pretending any of
boys were going to get away.

And then Lieutenant Branch McKinnon was flying. Turning slowly, impossibly through the air, like a Baltimore Oriole. His mind, detached from the dead, stringless puppet of his body pulled free with a discernible tug. He watched himself falling back to earth with bricks and clods of dirt, with the disembodied arms and legs of his friends and enemies, with clattering pieces of steel and burning splinters of wood. Lieutenant Branch McKinnon of Macon, Georgia, twisted oh so slowly through clear air, up so high he imagined he could see the entire city below him. The savage close-quarter battle that still raged around the spot where he had been blown clear out of his hole. The burning, ruined block he had been tasked with defending. The hundreds of communist soldiers running towards his position. And beyond that. He could see the Nakdong River curling its way around the mountains within which the city nestled. The beaches, on which thousands of people had gathered like dumb migrating animals, waiting to step off into the water. The port at which thousands more clawed at each other with hands and teeth for a spot on the handful of barges pulling away to sea. He could see the surviving ships of the US fleet as they poured on speed to escape the ignominious end.

Branch McKinnon saw all of these things. Or thought he did before he fell back to earth and into darkness.


To watch a city die is a rare and terrible thing. Great capitals rise and fall across the long arc of history, but relatively few men attend their last hours. Fewer still have witnessed the death of more than one, and for the most part such men are found in the service of tyrants and conquerors. Branch McKinnon, firstborn of Elsie and Lester, a humble son of the great state of Georgia, served no such master, but he was well acquainted with their kind. He fought them for most of his fifty-nine years, and saw them consume one city, one country after another.

Pusan did not kill him. Nor did Saigon, or Jakarta. Having survived the taking of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo in 1946, he would have been entitled to call that his lot and to retire from the field. Millions of others did. In a sense, the whole country shrank away from any more violence after Tokyo. McKinnon was a keen carpenter and sometimes spoke of the quieter life he might have lived building schoolhouses and barns and children's toys back home. Instead he was drawn to those places where things fall apart and men contend with each other to do their worst. He died, famously, in Singapore, another fallen city, but for once a loss that meant something; one that actually changed the world for the better.

He rests now in Arlington, probably content, if not quite at peace. Each day brings a new host of mourners to disturb his repose and they come in numbers rivalling those visiting the Kennedy and Eisenhower memorials. A visitor who knew nothing of American history might still understand why two popular Presidents both cut down in their prime would each day attract many hundreds of people wishing to pay their respects. But McKinnon's simple marble headstone, buried in a
mound of flowers that often spills over to cover the graves that surround it, could well confuse them. They might imagine that only a great man could command such affection, but surely a great man would not be interred so humbly, not if he were the favored son of such a proud and powerful republic.

McKinnon, a great man by any measure, flawed as are all men, celebrated and reviled, a creator-destroyer of the first order, lies beneath a simple tombstone because he demanded it be so. He is with his friends, and they lie as they fell: together. It is all too easy, away from the insensate horror of battle, to glorify the deaths of otherwise ordinary men, to forget that death in combat is always squalid and mean, and worse, to view their lives through a prism in which they were only ever brave and wise. McKinnon, like every other man and woman buried at Arlington, had his moments of bravery and wisdom, more so than most. But he was mortal and while it is true that his courage never failed him, at least on the battlefield, his wisdom and his judgment sometimes did.

When pressed for introspection he invariably described himself as ‘just a free man', but he chose to fight for his freedom and for others' in a time when that made him unusual, if not unique. During the long years when America withdrew from the world, flinching away from confrontation, Branch McKinnon sought it out. It made him in turns a pariah and a hero. He was famously denounced on the floor of the Senate as a murderer, a fraud and, most painfully of all, as ‘a traitor'.

But times will change, as Dylan sang, and when President Clinton spoke at the dedication of the Singapore Memorial he undoubtedly did so for all Americans when he said, ‘When these men fought, they saved the world.'


And so the world comes to pay homage.

On an unusually bleak October day one year and one month after the atrocity of 9-11, with a cold rain threatening, and an ill-tempered, contrary wind jagging through the long rows of headstones, a line of mourners wound down from the small, tree-covered knoll in Section 1 of the Arlington National Cemetery, a short walk from the grand colonnade of the Memorial Amphitheater. At the somewhat ragged
start of the line, maybe three hundred yards away from the first gentle rise of McKinnon's Hill, a regular smattering of new arrivals joined those who would spend the next hour shuffling forward to say a prayer, lay flowers, or just stand quietly with their heads bowed. There is a point about a hundred yards from the grave where everyone stops talking as though they have entered the nave of a church. No marker signals exactly where this transition is made, and no instructions are ever issued to the visiting public, but those soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Regiment who tend the gardens of stone avow that every day the same thing happens. People fall silent at about the same point as they approach the hill.

Back down on the road, however, where the queue began on this unremarkable day, most folks were chatting quietly and possessed of good if not high spirits, given the solemnity of their surroundings. A few muttered darkly about the anniversary just passed. Two young men, cousins studying at the Catholic University, discussed the war in Iran with a young, pretty woman wearing an FBI windcheater. But mostly conversation never strayed far beyond private concerns, as strangers swapped details of their hometowns, their journeys and, more often than not, their family connection with the National Cemetery.

Some had distant ancestors buried there, men and women who died in the Civil War. Daytona Anderson, a young archaeology graduate at George Washington had come to visit her great, great, great-grandmother, one of nearly four thousand former slaves and residents of Freedman's Village who are buried in the cemetery. Anderson felt that while she was there, she should also pay her respects on McKinnon's Hill.

‘My Auntie Desire served with Admiral Houston,' she said, by way of explanation for the detour.

Others had come to acknowledge great-grandfathers who fought with Pershing during World War One, and uncles and fathers lost on the Kanto Plain, in the bloodbath of Tokyo, or later at Inchon and Pusan. Like Anderson, they too had felt the need to make a show of public reverence in addition to whatever private calling had drawn them to Arlington. Separated from the Singapore Memorial by the vastness of the Pacific, they had chosen to visit what is now an
accepted ‘unofficial' site for those wishing to commemorate the South East Asian War, McKinnon's Hill.

Other mourners, whose loss was more immediate, and whose grief was still raw, spilled quiet tears onto the freshly clipped grass for sons and daughters lost in what very nearly became the Third World War. Ruth Ramshaw of Boise, Idaho, used one gloved finger to trace gently over a photograph of her only son, Michael, whose life ended thirty thousand feet above the South China Sea when the Chinese jet fighters he had drawn away from Admiral Houston's relief force finally put three missiles into his F-16, long after he had spent the last of his munitions, and two minutes before he would have run out of fuel. On either side of her, supporting a woman they had not met until today, Frank and Karen Muesburger of Council Bluffs, Iowa, had spent the morning at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Their son, Master Chief David Muesburger, is officially listed as Missing in Action, but Frank and Karen have laid him to rest in their hearts. He was a Navy Seal, working the island chains in the northern reaches of the former People's Democratic Republic of Indonesia, operating with Sumatran freedom fighters — or ‘pirates 'n' cutthroats', as Frank Muesburger, himself a 20-year Navy man, calls them with a wry grin

‘He never came home,' said Frank, clutching a handful of letters from his missing child. ‘And he won't. Ever. We know that. But he's our boy and we love him every bit as much now as on the day the Good Lord sent him to us.'

Ruth, Frank and Karen would stand patiently for most of that morning, protected from the elements by cheap, collapsible umbrellas and thin plastic rain slickers, shuffling forward in their old Hush Puppies and trainers, talking quietly with each other and with those around them, supporting anyone in need of a strong shoulder, and perhaps taking comfort and solace themselves when necessary. Given the day's dreary, inclement conditions you could understand why they might have taken leave of Arlington beforehand. Ruth Ramshaw had already visited the grave of her own son, and the Muesburgers had laid a wreath at the memorial dedicated to the spirit of their lost boy. But they did not leave. Like hundreds of others they waited unhurriedly to wind their way up the gentle climb to the Hill, there to exchange
whatever private thoughts they might have with the man who, in any analysis, had played a large part in precipitating the war which claimed the lives of their children.

A cynic might shrug off such dedication as the inevitable result of myth making by the champion cynics of the former Reagan and Bush Administrations. The increasingly shrill, partisan tone of national politics will not admit to high ideals on either side of the great divide, and the legacy of a figure such as McKinnon, who at times inspired extreme feelings and rhetoric from both left and right, will always be contested. Undeniably though, he remains admired and even loved by the many Americans who visit his grave every day, and even more tellingly by those who have travelled even further, across tens of thousands of miles, to pay their respects.

Salted throughout the line of mourners at Arlington were visitors from much farther afield than Council Bluffs or Boise, Idaho. Not five steps from where Frank Muesburger stood talking with a former Marine of comparable vintage was a most remarkable sight, two Papuan chieftains in full ceremonial dress, attended by expensively suited diplomats from the State Department and the Australian Colonial Office. Chiefs Somare and Wingti, resplendent in cassowary feathers, bone necklaces and penile gourds, stood motionless and utterly silent, stirring only when a pulse of movement passed along the queue, requiring of them one or two steps in the direction of their goal. Their presence elicited some comment and a considerable degree of curiosity, but not nearly as much as those confronting penile gourds demanded.

Branch McKinnon was known to millions of Americans indirectly, through the stories they read of him, or the news bulletins in which he featured. People from some of the farthest corners of the globe knew him personally and, to hear them speak of it, owed him a blood debt. The Papuan Chiefs were not alone in having travelled so far to make good on the balance. A little further up the queue stood four elders of the Kayan people of Borneo, while two Laotian monks waited under an oak tree about halfway up the hill to take their turn at the graveside. Less ostentatious, but no less sincere in wishing to pay homage were nearly two-dozen visitors from a broad fan of nations and peoples, among them ethnic Chinese businessmen from Java, three
nuns from Luzon, and one stooped and white-bearded gentleman from Nippon, Yuki Moritake.

Supported by two granddaughters, one on each arm, the former Japanese Army officer stared resolutely forward as he approached his destination in hobbling fits and starts. His deeply lined face, seemingly carved from oil-stained teak, remained largely hidden beneath the brim of a Chicago Cubs baseball cap. His granddaughters, Miko and Satomi, tried to keep him dry beneath their own umbrellas, but never quite settled on a suitable arrangement of the cover, allowing the drizzle that built up over the morning to soak him through.

Moritake was unusual, if not unique that morning. A former enemy who became a close and treasured friend of McKinnon, he had once been sworn to kill the American and all of his comrades. He labored mightily towards that end but failed, a cause of unutterable shame at the time, but now a reason for contentment if not celebration. McKinnon was the first American he had ever seen in the flesh, the first and last he ever met in close combat, and, according to the stooped and frail grandfather who had long ago led the defence of the Emporer's inner sanctum, a man of

The personal story of Branch McKinnnon does not begin with their meeting of course. He arrived in the world in 1925, born at a quarter past five in the afternoon, following a twenty-hour labor, during which his mother, Elsina Grace McKinnon, nee Wilmott, half bit through one of her husband Lester's old leather belts. Baby Branch was a big boy at 10.3 pounds, and he took his own good time in getting here. He enjoyed an unremarkable, if straightened childhood, his daddy always managing to find just enough work to see the family, which soon enough grew to three children, through the hardest days of the Great Depression.

We'll return to Macon, Georgia, in due course, and spend a little time with the McKinnon clan, but it is Branch's public life, his American story, to crib from the title of his own, unfinished memoir, which most concerns us. For in that life, so violent, so conflicted and chaotic at times, we find a parable of what might have been these past years, if only we had not shied away from the world and all its discontents.

Is there a point in time of which one can say, there is where it started to go wrong?

It's impossible to know with certainty, but had the Manhattan Project delivered the atomic bomb in time to use before the invasion of Japan it's most likely that half a million Americans would have lived, instead of dying in the dreadful meatgrinder of Operation Downfall. What then might have been different? What life might McKinnon, and millions of others have lived? But these are questions for those privileged to live a soft existence, away from bomb burst and rocket fire. They were a long way from McKinnon's thoughts on March 1st, 1946, as he rode an armoured landing craft toward Buick Beach, Sagami Bay, twenty-five miles southwest of Tokyo.

BOOK: A Captain of the Gate
6.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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