It was a moonless night with a high overcast that blocked whatever starlight might have challenged the cold blackness which swallowed me as I slipped out of the guard tent. I stood still for some time to allow my night vision to adjust. I refrained from pulling down the ear flaps so as to maximize hearing ability and felt each of the pockets of my outer gear to make sure I carried nothing that might jingle or cause noise. My left hand was covered by the standard two-piece winter glove while the right was sheathed only in the woven cotton inner liner which I could easily pull off with my teeth if I needed to bare my trigger finger. My M-2 .30 carbine had been retrieved from where I had left it, just outside the tent door so that I need not take time to wait for metal to stabilize with the temperature change. I was ready.
Because the area around our home compound was mostly an unprotected “free-fire” zone, we depended on a barbed wire barrier interspersed with trip flares for day-time security and manned sentry outposts at night or when under imminent warning of enemy activity. Our greatest exposure was the danger of individual intruders targeting our power supply, radar equipment, ammunition dump and key communications for the western front. The area to our north, looking toward the 38th parallel was on rising ground denuded of all trees and undergrowth by napalm bombs and pock-marked by old trenches and fighting holes. In the nighttime dark it was a maze of hidden obstacles and dark recesses; a graveyard of hiding places which had changed sides three times in the fighting.
Because of a “feeling in my bones”, I had given Airman Frost a night off and taken his place on Post#6 where I now sat behind an observation post of weathered sandbags looking out over that ghostly landscape where months earlier real “ghosts” had battled for a few square yards of miserable hardscrabble. (I was still naively intrepid and “gung ho” at that stage of my fast-fleeting teenage innocence, anxious to confront an enemy I had only seen through binoculars across the muddy Imjin River.)
It was about 0300 hours when I felt as well as saw a movement out of the corner of one eye; something had changed the shape of a shadow cast by the lip of an abandoned gun emplacement not more than a dozen yards away from where I kept my silent vigil. With my heart pounding and moving quietly but rapidly to a point where I could look down from a safe quarter I pulled my bayonet from its sheath and slid it onto my carbine in such a way as to signal the action noisily, I sang out with the Korean language challenge to Halt! JEONGJI! JEONGJI!
There was no response, but I could now see the figure of a person scrunched down in the corner of the fighting hole and holding his hands in front of his pale face. I thought for an instant of what I had told myself I would do with such an “opportunity.” But if the guy had been armed I would probably have been dead by now. Having instead shouted out: Sergeant of the guard, Post No. 6! Need back up! I jumped down into the hole to find myself looking into the frightened eyes of a “kid” dressed in the typical quilted winter duty wear of a North Korean soldier. Still shaking, I held my bayonet on him until my buddies arrived.
In the wee hours of the morning I sat across from the pair as our interpreter and Korean National Liaison Officer Cha Wal Bin carried out the interrogation (not an altogether pleasant undertaking to witness.) The young prisoner turned out to be a 2nd Lieutenant in the North Korean Peoples’ Army on an undercover mission as a courier. When we opened up some of the threads applied to his jacket quilting we found tiny strips of rice paper rolled into narrow bundles containing addresses of Northern sympathizers in Seoul. I have long forgotten his name so I call him “Lieutenant Cho”. What I will never forget is his youthful face and terrified eyes looking up at me in the dark of that cold Korean night. I still wake up with that moment playing in my mind’s eye and I tell myself that if he is still living I may be the reason why. I allow myself to believe he stayed in the South when the armistice was signed and has a loving family and posterity of his own enjoying the freedom we helped to leave behind for him. His is a story I have only shared with family and close friends, but for me “Lieutenant Cho” lives permanently in a warm and hopeful corner of my brain and we are connected in a way I can’t completely explain. Or deny!