Authors: Charles Robert Jenkins,Jim Frederick
Tags: #History, #Asia, #Korea
With her husband dead, my mother moved us all back to Rich Square, and she went to work as a nurse for a chiropractor in town. She would head to work in the morning when we went to school, and then come back around 5:00 or 6:00 to make sure we all had something for dinner. She tried to make sure we always had some meat, and I remember when we had enough spare butter to spread right onto our bread, that was a good day.
I was a troublemaker, and my mother was a strict disciplinarian. All through my childhood, I would just give her fits by acting up in school and running around town. Her favorite punishment was to sit me in a chair and not let me move or speak until she said I could go. She would leave me there for hours. When I was fourteen or fifteen, I started smoking. One time, I absentmindedly pulled a pack of out my shirt or jacket and—I wasn’t even thinking about where I was—started to light a cigarette inside the house. My mother popped me in the face so fast it wasn’t even funny.
I am sorry for all I put her through, but I never once doubted that my mother loved me as much as a mother possibly could. I don’t know if it was because I was the oldest son, or if one of the signs of being a good mother is that you convince each of your children individually that he or she is the favorite one, but she always made me feel like I was special. For example, at school they would sell ice cream cones for a nickel during recess; money was always tight in my family, but, whenever she could, my mother would slide me an extra nickel so I could get an ice cream cone.
A few years after my father died, my mother married Dan Casper, a divorced man who drove a truck for the state penitentiary in a nearby town. He had divorced his first wife after he found her in bed with another man. He was a good enough man and treated my mom well, so we had no problems with him, though the family’s finances never improved and we always scraped to survive. When I was fifteen, they had a daughter, whom they named Brenda, bringing the family total to eight children. I always felt a special closeness to my littlest sister. Since I was her big brother, she thought I was the greatest thing. When my second-youngest sister, Pat, was born, I was ten or eleven, so the last thing I wanted to be doing was holding and cuddling a baby. But by the time Brenda came around, I had changed my thinking. When I would come home, Brenda would see me and scream and climb into my lap. It broke my heart every time.
School and I never got along well. I did not like it, and I wasn’t particularly good at it. I was always very good at a lot of stuff that they didn’t teach in school—working on engines, doing carpentry and electrical work, and fixing things—but numbers and letters just never came easily to me. And even though I was a small guy, I was unusually strong and athletic for my size. One time, when I was a young teen, I picked up the transmission casing of a 1952 Ford and threw it on the back of a pickup truck all by myself—a feat that earned me my nickname, which I kept my whole time in Rich Square: Super (as in Superman). By the time I was thirteen or fourteen, I knew I would not be finishing high school, but unfortunately for me, you couldn’t leave school until you were sixteen, so I suffered through as best I could.
I filled my time out of school working. I worked down at the grocery store every weekday afternoon for $7 a week, and during the summers I would mow lawns. Whenever I got an extra fifty cents in my pocket, I would head over to Scotland Neck, where there was a skating rink. If I went on a Monday night, there would always be some guys from the North Carolina National Guard who had just finished their once-a-week drills hanging out. They would show up in their uniforms, even though the rules said they were supposed to take them off when not on duty, because they knew the girls went crazy over them and the boys were impressed.
Watching those guys in uniform and hearing them talk about the stuff that they were doing made me want to try it. But I was only fifteen at the time, and you needed to be eighteen to join, or seventeen with a parent’s signature. North Carolina and my family being what they were at the time, though, I didn’t have a birth certificate, so my mom just signed the induction papers saying I was seventeen. Simple as that. Everybody who knew me knew I was too young—and, plus, here I was this skinny thing, swimming in my uniform—but without a birth certificate, nobody could prove I wasn’t seventeen. Not that anybody really cared all that much. So soon enough, I became a member of D Company of the 119th Infantry Regiment of the North Carolina National Guard.
Every Monday night we would have two hours of drills in Scotland Neck. And two weekends a year plus two weeks per summer we would go to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for rifle training and shooting practice. That first summer I joined up, I volunteered for two months at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for more in-depth instruction in weapons and tactics, similar to what you would get in basic training in the regular army. That was one of the hardest things I had ever done. That whole first year was tough, in fact. The first time I ever really got screamed at by a regular army officer that first summer at Fort Jackson, I thought, This is not for me. But after I got used to it, I came to enjoy everything about it. The uniforms, the discipline, the way you could see yourself getting better at important skills. Even the sixteen-mile, full-pack road marches in ninety-five-degree heat. No matter what kind of hell they were at the time, when you were done, you felt like you had accomplished something. And I liked being one of the guys that showed up at the skating rink in uniform. I liked being oohed- and aahed-over rather than one of those doing the oohing and aahing.
In all, I spent three years in the Guard. When I wasn’t doing Guard stuff, I worked at the Pope Motor Company, a Ford dealership near my house. I was in charge of the lot, keeping the new and used cars clean and in working order. I liked my job, and I liked working on cars. My car, a 1950 Ford with a 1955 V-8 T-Bird engine, was the fastest car in Northampton County. During one of the back road races we would frequently have back then, they once clocked me driving my Ford at 140 miles per hour. But even while working and messing around, I always looked forward to the next training session most of all.
One night after Monday drills, instead of going to the skating rink, we went to the pool hall. There I had my first drink. I didn’t have but two beers before I was drunker than hell. I woke up the next morning with the worst headache I had ever had, and I swore I would never drink again. I didn’t take another drink until I was twenty-one, on leave during my first posting in South Korea, in a club in Yokohama, Japan. I didn’t know what to order. I didn’t know the names of any drinks. I heard a soldier next to me ask for a Tom Collins, so I said I’d have the same.
I wasn’t long in the National Guard before I made private first class, and it wasn’t long after that that I made corporal. And then I went up for sergeant. But I didn’t get it because the National Guard promotion review board asked me what I would do if a soldier under my command fled from battle. At summer training at Fort Jackson, they taught us if someone in combat turns and runs, you have to stop him at all costs, even if you have to shoot him. So that’s what I told the promotion board: If one of my soldiers deserted, and I couldn’t get him to return to battle, I would shoot him. Well, they didn’t like that answer, even though that was what I had been taught. I didn’t get my promotion. But I didn’t care that much since I knew I wasn’t going to be in the Guard much longer anyway. I was going to join the army.
2 | In the Army, and across the DMZ
In middle of 1958, I reached the end of my three-year National Guard hitch. They asked me if I wanted to extend or re-enlist, and I said, “Hell, no. I’m joining the army.” In November I reported for two months of basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, as an infantry soldier of B Company, Nineteenth Battalion, 1st Regiment. Since I had already been in the Guard, basic training was very easy for me. I didn’t even have to do most of the drills, and I spent a lot of my time as a driver in the motor pool. Once basic was over, I shipped out to Fort Dix, New Jersey, for advanced infantry training. After two months of that, I was off on my first plane ride ever, to Fort Hood, Texas, to join the 1st Armored Division.
The 1st Armored Division was a true combat unit, known as Old Ironsides. Over the years, members had seen major action in World War II and the Korean War. But for some reason, whether bad luck or I don’t know what, I was assigned to tend the shooting ranges. I did some of the carpentry to make the targets for the ranges, building the frames with two by fours and then fitting the spans with heavy fabric. And I made paste. I would make giant, forty-gallon vats of paste with flour, water, and Red Devil lye. We used the paste to stick paper targets to the fabric. Day to day, this was a fine job as far as it went, and I knew I liked the service well enough for the long term to get a tattoo on my left forearm of two crossed rifles above the words “US Army.” It cost me $4 at a tattoo parlor in Killeen, Texas, not far from base.
Soon enough, however, I got frustrated and bored doing paste runs, as we called them. It wasn’t my idea of real soldiering. I was hidden away in this corner after making private first class in 1959, and it didn’t look like I was going to get promoted again anytime soon. I had heard that opportunity for promotion was good in South Korea, though, so when I became buddies with someone who worked in the office at Fort Hood that was in charge of reassignments and he asked me where I wanted to go, I told him. There is nothing like knowing people in the right places. Just a few days after telling that guy where I wanted to be, I got my new orders: I was deploying to South Korea. This would be my first tour there. That tour was to be trouble-free. It wasn’t until my second hitch in Korea that I got myself into a world of problems.
I showed up at Camp Kaiser in South Korea in late September 1960. Camp Kaiser was under the Seventh Division, and it was the northernmost U.S. base in South Korea at the time. It wasn’t the closest base we had to the Demilitarized Zone, but because the DMZ runs diagonally from the southwest to the northeast, Kaiser was the farthest north. I really liked my time there. I was a member of the 17th Infantry Regiment, led by Col. Lawrence S. Reynolds. We were known as the Buffalos, and it was what we called a straight-leg infantry group, meaning there was no armor or transport attached to us. “If you ain’t walking, you ain’t getting there” is what we used to say. It was a tight unit, and you really had to be on the ball to get along out there. We would do drills, go out on patrols, take classes, and do field problems. Standard soldiering, really. But the rumors about good promotion opportunities in Korea turned out to be true. One of the rewards for doing well at inspection was getting to be the colonel’s personal guard for a day. I did this a couple of days in a row right off the bat, so I started to get to know the colonel pretty quickly. I would bullshit him a lot, to tell you the truth. I would say to him, “The men are all pulling for you to make general, sir,” and “Everybody says you run the best unit in Korea, sir.” He knew I was bullshitting, but I think a part of him bought it, too, because he was always especially nice to me. In February of 1961, I was promoted to specialist fourth class, and in June of that year, I was promoted to sergeant. After being private first class for so long, to make sergeant in less than a year—I have to admit, even I was surprised.
After my year hitch in South Korea and a month of home leave, I was off to Germany from New York Harbor on a boat called Geiger Counter, which I thought was a very strange name for a ship. I joined up with the B Company, Thirty-sixth Armored Infantry Regiment, Second Brigade, 3rd Armored Division, at Ayers Kaserne in Butzbach, Germany, not far from where Elvis Presley had been stationed in Friedberg. Here, I discovered that a lot of people resented how young I was for my rank. Many of their feelings were understandable. I was a fire team leader, which means I was in charge of half of a squad, or about five soldiers, but I really didn’t know many of the basics of leading men into battle. And I don’t mean the fuzzy stuff about leadership and confidence or even having what we called a “command voice”—my yelling voice has always been good—or a “command presence.” I am talking about the little but important things like the rules of radio communication, since one of the big parts of leading a squad is communicating with other units. Because of the way I got promoted and how quickly it happened, I had never learned any of it. Before getting to Germany, I had never used a field radio in my life.
I’ll give you an example. One of my first times out, when I didn’t hear something over the radio, I would say, “Repeat.” But the word “repeat” over the radio is a signal to your artillery units to fire a shell at exactly the same place they fired the last one. What you are supposed to say is, “Say again last transmission.” Oh, boy, did I catch hell for that one. If I had kept doing it the way I had done it, who knows how many extra shells I could have landed on various positions. But I learned quickly and hacked it the best I could, and soon I had learned enough and gained enough respect that people mostly left me alone on that front.
I wound up staying in Germany for three years. This was a great time in my life. I was young, held a high rank for my age, and was having fun both on the job and off. When that hitch was up, I put in my top three choices for reassignment. My number one choice was South Korea, and I got it. I was excited. I had had such a good time during my first South Korean tour, I thought that nothing but good things were going to come to me there. How wrong I was.
My second tour in South Korea started out just fine. There was no indication of how horribly it would go within just a couple of months and the extreme, life-changing actions I would soon be taking. I arrived at Charlie Company, First Battalion, Eighth Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, in September 1964. It was a tiny place called Camp Clinch, hard up against the edge of the DMZ, north of the Imjin River and east of the treaty village of Panmunjom. It was just a handful of Quonset huts, since Charlie Company was the only unit there. The company of eighty men was so overworked and understaffed that the company commander almost danced a jig when I arrived. He called me a sight for sore eyes. Two days later, I had my own squad of twelve men. I led patrols and helped operate a lookout station that we used to keep an eye on North Korea. My station was called Guardpost Desart. The monthly schedule I followed was one week of nighttime guard post duty, one week of daytime guard post duty, one week of classes and drills, and one week of nighttime ambush patrols along the DMZ, where we would head out into the hills and lay in wait for any North Korean units with the brass to have breached the 38th parallel or any spies trying to make it to the heart of South Korea. Obviously, our patrols were designed as deterrence, and I guess this strategy worked, since we never encountered a North Korean in the short time I was there. It was a good routine, and other than the obvious tension and danger of being on the famous tripwire, I enjoyed it. For a while, anyway.