D. E. Larsen, DVM
The Korean winter was brutal to this farm boy from the Pacific Northwest. I was used to a little wet snow that would last a day or two. And freezing temperatures slipped below the twenty-degree mark on the thermometer only on rare occasions.
Actually, my time in Korea was a piece of cake. I was a member of the 177th US Army Security Agency Operations Company. We were located in Camp Humphreys, probably an hour south of Seoul.
This time period is often called the second Korean War because of the numerous incidents of North Korean infiltrators causing many firefights and other havoc on the DMZ.
Our unit was responsible for most of the electronic intelligence involving those infiltrators. But we were insulated from the actual conflict. The conflict was accountable for losing over one hundred American servicemen during my thirteen months in the country. That was a small number compared to the losses in Vietnam during the same period.
I lived in a concrete block building that was uninsulated. For the first couple of months, I was the only inhabitant of a two-man room on the second floor of the barracks that housed the second trick. My room was on the end of the building, on the west end.
By Army standards, life was easy. We had a houseboy that did all work. For five dollars a month, plus what the Army paid him, he polished my shoes, made my bunk, cleaned the room, and took care of my laundry. He also was a fifth-degree blackbelt in Karate, so he added a bit of security to the barracks while we were at work.
It was probably in late November when a new guy, Clarence, moved into my room. Clarence was a great guy, and we got along well. He tried to teach me some of the finer arts of photography, but I was a lost cause. Most of the pictures I have of that time came from Clarence.
Clarence was from Maui. If I thought I suffered from the winter temperatures, Clarence really had reason to suffer.
Clarence related the story of the day he joined the Army, nearly a year before my enlistment. When he enlisted, the Army gathered a planeload of new recruits from Hawaii and flew them to San Francisco. They would do their basic training at Fort Ord, just south of San Francisco at Monterey.
“When I grew up, the coldest temperature I experienced on Maui was fifty-four degrees,” Clarence said. “When we stepped off the plane in San Francisco, it was raining and thirty-seven degrees. We all thought we were going to die. Fort Ord in November is not a fun place for a bunch of Hawaiian kids.”
Korea was far more severe than Fort Ord ever thought of being. Camp Humphreys was located on a coastal flat close to the shore of the Yellow Sea. We were buffeted with a strong west wind that came off the Yellow Sea straight from China for most of the winter.
Those winds would turn my room on the west end of the block barracks into a virtual icebox. If I made sure the heat was set high enough, I was relatively comfortable with my bunk against the room’s interior wall. We called the outside wall the freezer wall.
When Clarence arrived, it was about the time we were issued winter gear. Wool pants and wool fatigue shirt. Coupled with insulated liners for our field jackets and headgear with ear flaps, life was a little better. The brass even allowed us to purchase black-market hoods for our field jackets. These were lined with fur, and I am pretty sure it was from the dog farms.
Clarence always looked uncomfortable, no matter how bundled up he was at the time. And his bunk was against the outside wall, the freezer wall.
I realized how uncomfortable the weather was for him when I woke up in the middle of the night, and Clarence was pulling his bunk out to the middle of the room, away from the freezer wall. I could sympathize with him, but never to the extent of changing places for our bunks.
Clarence was sent to the 177th because of his unusual MOS (Military Occupational Speciality). We had a van that was set up to intercept faxes. This was in 1966, and I had never heard of fax. This van had been in mothballs for some time, and Clarence was sent to make it operational. Of course, he needed the help of the maintenance crew, which in this case, turned out to be me.
It took Clarence and me nearly a whole week before he pulled the first newspaper-sized fax out of the machine. I was amazed, although I would guess that the technology had been in use for some time by industry.
Clarence’s climate issues were destined to get worse before the winter was over. Once the fax van was fully operational at the 177th, Clarence was transferred to another unit near the DMZ.
There the accommodations were more primitive and the weather even more severe.
I was back to being the sole inhabitant of my two-man room. Clarence and I have remained friends for the last fifty-some years. If only by mail and e-mail.
Photo by Clarence.