When the Korean War broke out on June 25th, 1950, the first American service men to find themselves engulfed in that unique conflict were drawn from the ranks of occupation forces already stationed in Japan. As “peace keepers”, they faced a traumatic transition to an unremitting combat environment, for which they were largely untrained and grossly unequipped. That they fought so well and literally “saved the day” for the gathering phalanx who would follow only adds to the measure of their contribution to a cause whose dimensions were still unforseen and unforeseeable.
For the 1,800,000 American soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who would follow that vanguard, the transition was no less challenging, especially since they had experienced no prior introduction to the people of East Asia. The Korean culture is vastly different, even from that of the Japanese, and their distinct history and language reach back tens of centuries. The typical G.I. had neither the time nor much opportunity to bridge that knowledge gap, and besides, they were locked in a daily struggle just to stay alive in a harsh and very unfriendly piece of real estate.
The closest most American servicemen came to “rubbing shoulders” regularly with South Korean civilians, was through a uniquely US/Korean wartime institution known as “the houseboy”.
Once some stability in battle lines was established, most of us became residents of well-worn, WW II canvas squad tents, each housing ten or twelve men. If we were fortunate enough to stay in one place long enough, we might even lay a makeshift floor of old crating material, and install a kerosene-fueled stove. (It is a characteristic of American fighting men that given the chance, they will quickly convert whatever shelter they have at hand into a replica of the home they left behind.)
The typical houseboy was a young teenager, not old enough to be in the ROK Army, but often mature beyond his years, and probably the principle or lone bread winner for his war-ravaged family. To earn his keep he performed all the house-keeping chores for residents of at least one tent ful of G.I.s, airing sleeping bags, filling water basins and personal canteens, cleaning and polishing boots, emptying the ever-present cigarette butt cans, running errands, arranging for laundry duties with villagers, and guarding the property of that handful of gum-chewing visitors from a foreign land he quickly adopted as “big brothers”. All of this for a carton or two of cigarettes - the universal currency - or Korean whan paper money of questionable and varying worth. The most sought-after “boys” were also accomplished “scroungers”; expert in locating whatever odd thing was needed, no questions asked. (Rolls of bathroom tissue, the occasional light bulb, and bottles of real Coca Cola were of particular value.)
Perhaps even more important, and less appreciated was the bridge between cultures and language represented by this humble ambassador of good will dedicated to serving others, and willing to forgive the unintended indifference and lofty hubris of those they cared for with such loyalty.
For me, that unforgettable companion and mentor of all things “Korean” was a thirteen-year-old boy known to us as “Sammy”. His real name was Ho jin Ko, and he lived in the nearby village of Chi Hyang ri. For nearly a year, he saw to it that my jump boots were the spiffiest, my sleeping area the neatest, and the field jeep I sometimes used, far cleaner than any other in the unit. His attentiveness was indefatigable, and I tried always to show my deep appreciation.
When asked by the documentary film crew from Korean National Television who accompanied our group of Utah Veterans on our 2009 revisit if there was someone from the past I might like to locate, I told them about Sammy. But such a reunion seemed so unlikely, even impossible given the passage of so much time and the vagaries of wartime memory that I held no real expectation of success. In fact I was more amused than anything by the enthusiastic effort being made by my Korean hosts in their persistent search for Sammy.
I was still doubtful when, on May 30th we drove south from Seoul to the distant city of Deagu where the researchers at KNTV claimed they had located Ho jin Ko, now in declining health and impaired memory in a care facility. Even as the wheelchair-bound patient, with his younger sister at his side was pushed from an elevator into the room where our small party waited, I was uncertain; time had indeed taken its toll on the young boy I had once known. As we talked and friends interpreted, his memory began to come back, and his recollection of small details brought a smile to his face and a glow to his countenance. My own son who had just flown to Korea to be with me managed to snap on unplanned picture with his cell phone as I once again shared a hug with a friend from out of the past. The search for ”Sammy”had come to an end.