by Jim Foreman


We were already tired and disgusted when we climbed off the busses which had transported us to the Army docks in San Francisco. We were in full battle dress, wearing steel helmets and carrying full field packs, rifles slung over our shoulders, bandoleers of ammunition hung around our necks and dragging our duffle bags. We looked for all the world like combat troops bound for the front lines. Colonel Hull was out in front, blowing his whistle, dragging his leg and yelling for us to fall into formation.
       A hulking ship with peeling gray paint and huge blotches of rust was moored to the dock, awaited our arrival. The faded name "USNS General Neslon M. Walker" was painted on its bow. Two sailors watched our arrival from an dock-level hatchway which was opened in the side of the ship. The opening was large enough to drive a truck through and one could have stepped directly into the ship from the dock. We could see row upon row of stacked bunks inside the ship.
       A long, narrow gangplank angled steeply upward from the dock to the top deck of the ship. There was a strong odor of diesel in the air around the ship and a number of workmen were using steam hoses to clean the red oxide protective coating which had been applied to combat the rust. We learned that it had just been removed from the fleet of mothballed relics which had been stored across the bay at Benicia since the end of World War Two.
       "Follow me, men!" shouted Colonel Hull as he blew his whistle, waved his hand and gimped off toward the gangplank, dragging his left leg in John Wayne fashion.
       "Asshole!" whispered Billy Bob. "It is OK if that old son of a bitch wants to act like John Wayne, but does he have to embarrass the whole unit in front of the Navy!"
       We struggled up the steep gangplank, puffing and sweating under the load of combat gear and heavy duffle bags. Up and up we climbed until we finally stood on the uppermost deck of the rusting scow. Colonel Hull marched across the deck to an open doorway and shouted for us to follow him. Inside the doorway, another steep stairway faced us, this time leading downward into the dark bowels of the ship. Single file, we stumbled and staggered down flight after flight of steel steps, until we finally reached a number of long compartments, each filled with end to end bunks from floor to ceiling, stacked one above the other. Row upon row of dim bulbs protected by wire guards cast a yellow glow in the aisles between the bunks. Sunlight flowed into the middle of the huge compartment through the open hatchway where the same two sailors stood, watching us as we crammed ourselves into the narrow aisles.
       "Why the hell didn't we just walk aboard through that door in the side of the ship, instead of climbing all the way up to the top deck and back down again?" asked Billy Bob in a voice loud enough for Colonel Hull to hear him.
       "At Ease!" shouted Colonel Hull. "Everyone knows that when troops ship out, they always climb the gangplank; it's a military tradition!"
       "Tradition, my ass," shouted someone from the rear. "You're a stupid asshole."
       "Get that man's name and put him on report!" shouted Colonel Hull. But, finding the owner of the voice which made the salient remark in that crush of people was impossible.
       "Each compartment holds 200 men," shouted Captain Sanders. "Pick out a rack and stow your gear on it. This will be your home for at least two weeks. Latrines are forward and aft. I want to see all sergeants on deck in thirty minutes."
       The bunks were nothing more than frames made of steel pipe with a canvas cover stretched over them. They were six feet long and a bare twenty inches wide, spaced no more than eighteen inches from the one above or below it. Once we put all of the combat gear, rifle and duffle bag onto the bunk, there was no room left to lie down.
       When all of the sergeants were gathered on deck, Captain Sanders said to us, "Men, conditions will be difficult at best during this trip. I am depending on you sergeants to assume your roles of leadership and maintain the morale of the men in your compartment. Each of you will be in charge of some detail while aboard and I expect you to see that it is done properly and without my having to become involved." With that little speech, Captain Sanders probably did more to draw the men of the 1903rd together than anything before. 

       The sun was a red ball in the west when the USNS General Nelson M. Walker wallowed beneath the Golden Gate Bridge and pointed its rusty prow toward Japan. When the sun rose over the stern the following morning, there wasn't a speck of land, another ship or even seagulls to be seen.
       Arthur Arthur Arthur was leaning on a rail, staring blankly at the gray water rolling past, "Boy, I never knew that this much water existed."
       Red Ryder, who had just come from the opposite rail, replied, "Yeah, and there is just as much more over on the other side."
       Days came and days went while we ate food which tasted of diesel, drank coffee which smelled of diesel and listened to the incessant rattle of paint chippers as the sailors went about their work of changing the ship from a rust bucket into a ship of the fleet. About the only thing which broke the monotony was periods of sea sickness.
       "You know," said Billy Bob one morning, "Being in the navy is as bad as being in jail. You chip the paint off one wall of your cell on Monday, and put on a new coat on Tuesday. Same goes for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. You don't have to work on weekends, but you still can't get out of the cell. Bad as it is, being in the army beats the navy all to hell."
       On the foggy morning of the fourteenth day, we awoke to find that the ship had slowed to a crawl. The water around us had changed from blue to a dirty brown and clumps of floating trash could be seen in all directions. Seagulls wheeled around the fantail and dove after scraps of garbage which the cooks dumped overboard. The air held the smells of strange land. A rope ladder was thrown overboard as a small yellow boat came along side. The pilot came aboard and took command of the ship; we were coming into Yokohama Harbor.
       We moved forward at a snail's pace, then stopped dead in the water. We strained our eyes for a glimpse of land, but all that came within sight through the fog was a few small fishing boats. We would wave at the occupants, but they simply stared at us with stoic faces. As the day was approaching its end, two tug boats approached and nudged their blunt noses against our steel side. The stubby little boats belched smoke and water churned behind them as we moved slowly sideways to a dock which materialized out of the fog.
       "Fall in and follow me!" shouted Colonel Hull as we hoisted our field packs, rifles and duffle bags. Back up the narrow stairways we climbed and then down the swaying gangplank we stumbled on legs which had become accustomed to the constant roll of the deck. "Line up single file, draw a box of C-Rations as you pass that truck and load onto the train."
       The engine which was attached to the ancient cars, sat there like a huge animal, breathing coal smoke and making train noises. Aboard, we found that the hard wooden seats were designed for the proportions of the average Japanese and there was no place to store our gear. We sat in our tiny spaces, wearing our combat gear and holding our duffle bags between our knees. When everyone was aboard, the engine gave a couple shrill toots and puffed into the approaching darkness.
       A Lieutenant came through the car, telling us, "Eat only the dinner portion of your C-Rations and save the breakfast portion for tomorrow morning. You will get a special treat tomorrow at noon as it is Thanksgiving and we will be served a full turkey dinner with all the trimmings."
       We opened our boxes of C-Rations and read the instructions printed on the inside of the lid. "This package contains rations for one day for an individual soldier. Packages bearing the Number 1 are to be consumed for breakfast, Number 2 are for lunch and Number 3 are for dinner.
       "Would you look at the date when this stuff was packed," said Arthur Arthur Arthur. "This box has the date of September 8, 1943. That makes it eight years old, probably spoiled by now."
       "Hell, yours is almost new compared with mine," said Billy Bob. "This box was put up in December of 1942."
       "Would you look at the choices that I have for dinner," said Red Ryder. "I can have ham with beans, ground beef with beans or franks with beans."
       "I got meatballs and beans and pork with tomato sauce and beans," replied Bobby Ward.
       "What the hell, I have a can of beans with beans," said Billy Bob. "Wouldn't surprise me to find a can of peaches with beans. With all of these beans that we will be eating tonight, we'll all be farting like Filpot."
       "Yeah, or like you did on that trip to California," I replied.
       "Speaking of Filpot, wonder where he is now and what he is doing. You ought to know all about him, Foreman. He was an old buddy of yours from back home, wasn't he?" said Red Ryder.
       "I saw the orders when they shipped him out of the 1903rd at Fort Leonard Wood, he was headed for the Laughing Academy at Fitzsimons Hospital in Denver." said Bobby Ward.
       Some government shrink probably decided that the army was what drove him nuts, gave him a pension for life and sent him home. He is probably back in Stinnett right now, screwing his pigs and getting drunk every night while we are headed for Korea," I replied.
       "Hell, knowing the Army, they have probably made him a Lieutenant by now," said Billy Bob.

       The train huffed and puffed and rattled along in the darkness for about an hour, pulled onto a siding and stopped. The tiny bulbs which illuminated the cars dimmed and went out, leaving us in silence.
       Billy Bob, who was leaning out the window, said, "Looks like we are here for the night, because the train crew just got off and left."
       It was difficult to decide whether that night was equal to, better or worse than those had been on the rolling ship. Sleep comes with great difficulty when one is sharing a small, hardwood seat with a duffle bag, rifle and field pack. Sleep was also hard to come by when a passenger train would scream by about every ten minutes all night long.
       "You'll have to whiz out the door because the shitter is stopped up and running over," reported Billy Bob as he returned to his seat.
       "Hell, you Texans just aren't accustomed to the better things of life, like flush toilets," said Red Ryder. "There is a little lever down beside the pot, that you step on to dump it."
       "Hell, I'm not that stupid," said Billy Bob. "The damn thing is jammed and won't work."
       "When the train stops, the lever is locked so you can't dump the toilet while in the station," I told them. "Soon as the train gets moving again, you'll be able to use them."
       The train crew returned at daylight, shook up the fire in the boiler and soon had steam squirting from every seam. When everything was up to power, they gave a couple toots on the whistle and puffed back onto the main tracks.
       We opened our boxes of C-Rations and checked out what we would have for breakfast. "I got some powdered coffee here, but where do we get hot water to mix it with?" I asked.
       "Use cold water, I suppose," replied Billy Bob. "After last night, cold coffee is better than no coffee at all."
       "If you scrape the white coating off the chocolate bar, it ain't too bad," said Lester.
       "I have some moldy old crackers and some peach flavored stuff about the consistency of an art gum eraser to spread on them," said Arthur Arthur Arthur.
       "Well, at least we can look forward to a Thanksgiving dinner today," said Bobby Ward. "It is awfully hard to screw up a turkey.
       Our train huffed and puffed along, pulling off and stopping on a siding about every twenty minutes to allow one of the streamlined passenger trains, which are the major transportation for the Japanese, to rip by. It was almost two in the afternoon, we pulled onto a siding, next to an engine hooked to two cars which were obviously traveling kitchens of some sort. The kitchen cars were moved next to the rear two cars on our train and ramps lowered to make walk-ways between them. As soon as the occupants of those two cars had filed through and were served, the ramps were lifted and the kitchen cars moved forward to the next two cars. Since we were in the first car of the train, we would be the last ones to go through the chow line.
       "Hope to hell that there is something left when they get to us," said Billy Bob.
       Carrying our mess kits and cups, we walked into the tantalizing aroma of Thanksgiving back home. First, we came to a huge pile of roast turkey, consisting of nothing except drumsticks. Obviously, the better parts of those birds had been served elsewhere; but any part of a turkey beats cold beans with beans from a can. Next came the stuffing, candied yams, green beans and finally pumpkin pie. We filed back into our car in anxious anticipation of our meal.
       My mouth watered as I picked up the drumstick to take a big bite. I bit down on the leg and it sprang back like chewing on a truck tire. I tried to wrench a piece of meat loose by clamping down with my teeth and twisting the leg. I was finally able to detach a piece of meat by sawing away at the leg with my pocket knife. The longer that I chewed on that rubbery piece of turkey, the larger it became until it seemed that I was trying to swallow a baseball. I looked around and everyone else was experiencing the same problems in trying to eat their tough drumsticks.
       On the siding next to us, the cooks in the kitchen cars had lifted the ramps and were putting things away. Our windows were open as were those on the kitchen cars, so I took the offending turkey leg and heaved it across the space between the cars and back into the kitchen. Seeing me do this, everyone else in the car began to return their drumsticks in the same manner. As our train pulled from the siding, some eight hundred tough, inedible drumsticks flew through the air and returned to their home in the kitchen cars while the cooks frantically tried to stem the flow of returning turkey legs by closing their windows. We finished the rest of our Thanksgiving dinner while the train puffed its way toward the seaport town of Sasebo. 

       When the train reached Sasebo, it backed onto a dock next to a ship bearing the name, "Koanmaru" in both Japanese and English. Each of us was handed another box of C-Rations as we walked from the train to the ship, up a short gangplank and aboard.
       The Koanmaru was built entirely of wood and the floors covered with mats made from rice straw. The ship was Japanese in every way. All signs were written in Japanese, all the bathrooms were fitted with Japanese fixtures and the crew was entirely Japanese.
       There was much shouting in Japanese, gangplanks were raised, ropes were released and black smoke began to boil from the stack. We eased slowly from the dock, swung around and moved out of the harbor. There was ample room for us to pile our duffle bags, rifles and combat gear out of the way, so we sat cross-legged on the rice mats and opened the C-Ration boxes to see what had been packed in them eight or nine years ago.
       Night came and the slow rocking of the boat combined with the nearly sleepless night on the train had everyone snoring in short order.
       It was just turning gray in the east when whistles began to blow. "Everyone on their feet and in full battle dress," yelled Col. Hull. "We will be going ashore in Korea within the hour. Everyone check his weapon and fix bayonets."
       "What an Idiot," whispered Billy Bob. "What is he going to have us do, invade Pusan?"

       The city of Pusan began at water's edge and crawled up over low hills. Smoke hung low in the sky and hundreds of small boats chugged their way toward fishing grounds a few miles off shore. The captain of the Koanmaru threaded his way past fishing nets and into the harbor. With a great amount of shouting and pointing, he brought us up against a long dock where a line of trucks sat waiting.
       The gangplank had no more than touched the dock when Colonel Hull shouted, "Follow me, men!" as he charged off the ship with his rifle at the ready.
       Within a few minutes, the entire unit stood at attention on the dock. An Air Force Colonel walked up, looked us over and said, "I am supposed to meet the 1903rd Engineer Aviation Battalion. Who are you?"
       Col. Hull came to present arms with his rifle and replied, "The 1903rd Engineer Aviation Battalion reporting for duty, Sir! Lieutenant Colonel Hull Commanding."
       "What the hell are you doing with all of that battle gear?" demanded the Air Force Colonel. "You are assigned to the Air Force, not the damn Marines. Who the hell do you think you are, John Wayne?"
       "But Colonel," protested Col. Hull. "This is Korea and a war zone. I requisitioned combat gear for my men so we would be ready to handle any situation that we might find ourselves in when we landed."
       "Bullshit!" bellowed the Air Force Colonel. "The front is two hundred miles north of here. The only way that you could get further from combat is to jump off the fucking dock and start swimming. Have your men throw that combat shit in a pile on the dock and get their asses aboard those trucks."
       It was with the greatest pleasure that we tossed the field packs, ammunition belts, horseshoe rolls and other combat gear into a pile which became higher and higher. Just to think that we had been forced to drag all of that useless gear 12,000 miles because Col. Hull had seen that damn John Wayne movie.
       As we were climbing aboard the trucks, we heard a lot of shouting as Japanese crewmen came running from the Koanmaru. We watched as it listed a bit and sank slowly until it rested on the bottom of the harbor, still tied to the dock. When we drove away, all that was above water level was the bridge and smokestack.
       "I'm damn glad that we got here when we did," remarked Billy Bob. "It would have been a long swim if that old tub had decided to sink last night between here and Japan."
       The convoy of trucks rattled through the stinking streets of Pusan, past a Korean Army Post and along the Naktong River for a few miles before it turned left across a bridge and onto a delta which was protected from flooding by a high dike. We met another convoy of trucks, bearing Marine Corps Insignia, approaching from the opposite direction.
       "That is the First Marine Air Wing, departing from K-1 Airbase, where you are going," our driver told us. "You are taking over the base from them." As we entered the deserted base, we saw our trucks and heavy equipment standing in long lines. They had been shipped over ahead of us on a freighter in order to be here when we arrived. There were the piles of boxes which contained all of our equipment, waiting to be unpacked.
       A Pierced Steel Plank runway stretched nearly a mile in length and a hundred or more tents stood erect on wooden frames. Stovepipes from pot-belly heaters stuck through the top of each tent, some still sending a trail of smoke into the chilly air. Several buildings which the Marines had used as base headquarters stood on a small rise of land and other smaller buildings clustered around them.
       "At least there is a lot more here than there was at Beale when we got there," remarked Major Parker.

Index | Next Chapter