Note: This is part of a series. Read part one here.
Dawn cracks in the Republic of Korea (ROK) and 10,000 roosters crow. My auditory senses are awakened. I stare at the olive drab of the tent canvas above my cot. Visual acquisition and, wait for it…wait for it…ah, there it is—olfactory perforation by rotton cabbage, coupled with burning rubber and feces. Gooooood morning, ROK!
My Green Beret A-team is housed all together in a cramped, general-purpose medium tent, one each. Most of us are sitting up now in our cots; swaddled in poncho liners, we blink at each other by the dawn’s early light. By now the click-clack-click of jungle boots on wooden pallet sidewalks indicates that morning chow is afoot. The wafting of green eggs and ham from the land of the big PX confirms that chow is indeed on, Sam I am.
In the chow tent, our “team sergeant,” Buck, tells us that we will have an opportunity to conduct some live fire and demolitions training on one of the Korean range fire facilities. This would be a good day. Something to do besides watch massive formations of Korean soldiers performing synchronized Tae Kwon Do katas, or work out with the Fred Flintstone weight sets that were ubiquitous in the ROK military. They were large, #10 soup cans filled with concrete on each end of a five-foot pole, and served as curl bars. You could really feel the burn around repetition 900.
We loaded a few vehicles with weapons and other kit, drove to the field-expedient ammunition supply point (ASP), and loaded a respectable consignment of blow to take to the demolitions range. As we loaded ourselves for departure on the short drive to the range, it appeared I would not get away without giving one more singing performance of the Korean national folksong “Arirang” to the new group of soldiers my buddy Sgt. Park had herded up to hear me sing. Damn me for ever learning it in the first place. I had become a measure of novelty to the Koreans, the round-eye who could sing Arirang. That or a circus freak of sorts.
“Let’er rip and lets get moving, Elvis!” someone called out. I cleared my throat and belted out the first verse of the folk song, which was followed by a token golf clap and appreciative nods. I felt like Side Show Bob as I mounted our Range Rover. Off then, to rock down to Electric Avenue and shake the Korean countryside.
Our first order of business was some demolitions training. We had, among other sundries in our load of blow, quite a stack of block C-4 “plastic” explosive, a high-explosive charge that expanded at a rate of 23,000 feet per second, and was regarded as a primary steel cutting charge. We had no steel, but plenty of timber in the form of deadfall and standing trees.
Of course, we all wanted to wad it up into one big ball and recreate the Big Bang, but Buck wouldn’t have any of that; the Buck stopped here. “Just treat these timbers as if they were steel pipes and cut ‘em, guys. Come on, let’s see some diamond and half-diamond charges and other cutters.” We split into two-man teams and assessed our surroundings with the greatest of creativity in mind.
Our company commander, who was still back in Fort Lewis, Washington, was unaffectionately nicked “Squeakers,” a titled he had earned during his tenure as our company executive officer (XO) for his propensity to report our many minor transgressions to the then-incumbent company commander. “He’s a rat, boys. He’s a rat and he bears watching,” Chief Richard R., our team warrant officer, warned.
I chose a diamond steel cylinder-cutting charge, which I molded from C-4 and wrapped around a fallen log. As I crimped my blasting cap around the time fuse, I couldn’t help but notice that one of our engineers, Mikey G. had created what to all the world looked like a human figure molded of C-4, and was plastering it to a tree trunk. “Hey, Mike…what kind of charge is that?” I puzzled.
“It’s Squeakers,” he said, “and now I’m going to prime him,” he continued as he inserted the blasting cap into what was discernibly the rectum of the figure.
Ka-RACK! went the Michael G. Squeakers timber-cutting charge in a shower of splinters and dark, pungent smoke. “Clean cut!” Mikey bragged. “Hell, that’s the most work Squeakers has done all year!”
We progressed finally to the known distance (KD) automatic weapons fire range down the access road, and proceeded to riddle impromptu targets with our team’s M-249 Squad Automatic Weapons (SAWs). As bad luck would have it, we soon ignited brush downrange with the tracer rounds from the SAWs. “Just let it burn, guys!” Buck urged. We obliged.
Before long, though, we had a formidable conflagration chomping at the bit, fueled by dry tinder and deadfall. “Cease fire!” Buck eventually called out. “We need to get this under control so we can keep training.” We pounced on the fire with shovels and what little water we had. We fell back soon, opting to dig a fire break to the burn’s front, to snuff it when it arrived.
There was the distinct snap, pop, whizzzzz of tracer rounds igniting and crisscrossing to our front. We decided to distance ourselves and let the spreading fire burn to the break. The blaze broke as planned, and smoldered slowly in the opposite direction for a spell. “Well, we’re done here for the day; let’s load up and head back to the FOB.”
Back at tent metropolis, we click-clacked our way to dine at the Canvas Cabana. “I’ll have an 11-ounce prime rib with horseradish sauce, pan-seared potatoes, and a sprinkle of kosher sea salt,” I announced matter of factly. Dr. Suess, the cook, didn’t bat an eye; he imparted a load of Spam, instant mashed potatoes, and instant IDK WTF onto my plate. With the deadest of deadpan expressions, he replied, “11-ounce prime rib with horseradish sauce, pan-seared potatoes, and a sprinkle of kosher sea salt…next!” This wasn’t the cook’s first day at smart-aleck remarks. You had to have a sense of humor. GBs are good at that.
“Hey you guys, you might want to come out here and see this,” one of the boys suggested from outside the mess tent.
Outside the tent, he chin-pointed toward an orange glow emanating from the location of the ranges. “OK, George, Guy, and Ed come with me; we’re going to have to take care of that fire ASAP,” Buck directed. As we bumped along the range road, we heard an unwelcome sound coming from the general direction of the range—BOOM. We looked at each other but said nothing. As we feared, the fire had erupted from smoldering ash that we caused earlier.
Once at the range, we were not prepared for what we saw. Korean troops to the tune of nearly 100 men had already been directed to respond to the range fire. As we stepped out of the truck, we saw a wounded Korean soldier parallel to the ground, face down, being carried by no less than 10 other soldiers, five on either side, each with their own little pinch of the stricken troop’s uniform, and they were trying to run. It was an absolute melee.
“Looks like a 203 round (40mm high-explosive tube-launched grenade) cooked off in the fire and bit one of them,” Buck assessed.
Screaming Korean soldiers massed around us. “OK, let’s get back in the vehicle right now, guys.” We pushed our way back to our truck, vaulted ourselves in, and locked the doors. ROK troops swarmed our vehicle and it began to rock. “Fuck this!” Ed shouted from the driver’s seat. He put the truck in gear and we parted the yellow sea en route back to the feeble defense of tent city.
“You guys pack your stuff and get ready to leave,” the freshly informed FOB commander told us. He was arranging for a C-141 Starlifter to fly us back to the States. Overreaction is the first thing that came to my mind, but then I didn’t know the extent of the afflicted Korean soldier’s injuries. Well, this stinks, I mused…but if you wanna dance, ya gotta pay in the ROK.
The next time the 10,000 roosters cried out and the reek of the atmosphere began to set in, we were still in tent city, waking to the click-clack of the boots on planks. Standing outside our tent waiting for the rest of the team to get out so we could go to breakfast together, we noticed a Korean soldier standing just outside the door of the nearest barracks. His left arm was generously bandaged and propped in a sling. His face was pockmarked with fresh scabs, and his head and left eye were also bandaged.
Our junior engineer, Abraham B., laughed and waved to him, pantomiming a person swatting at the flames of a fire, then suddenly jumping into the air as from an explosion. The Korean cracked a big grin, nodding vigorously, and mimed his own version of the previous night’s event. We gave him a thunderous round of applause peppered with enthusiastic “HOOAHs.”
“What’s for breakfast this morning, George?” Buck drawled. “Ah, today, Buck, there are Eggs Benedict with Hollandaise sauce, pan-fried hash-browned potatoes with capers and salsa, fresh-squeezed orange juice, coffee ground personally by Señor Juan Valdez, and sherbet—flavor of your choice. Just tell Dr. Seuss I sent you.”
And that my friends, you cannot make up.