For several square miles outside the trip flare-studded barbed concertina wire circling our base camp on Korea’s 38th parallel, we regularly patrolled the former farming country which was designated as a “military zone” in which civilians traveled at their own risk. It was a “free fire zone”, but a handful of Korean Nationals still tended rice paddies there during the day. Most of them were technically North Koreans – not because of ideology so much as geography – and were friendly with us. It was a region still tied to Korea’s ancient farming practices and cultural traditions, and we were under orders always to respect these itinerant villagers. For me this was not difficult, since in so many ways they were much like the descendants of the pioneer heritage of those I had known in “old” New England.
The spring and summer of 1953 saw some of the most vicious fighting of the war now in its third year, and with peace talks underway, the enemy was intent on extending their territory as far south as possible. Along the 38th, there was really no such thing as a “safe zone”. It was against this uncertainty that a buddy from Illinois with whom I shared a rare day off, suggested we go pheasant hunting in that very countryside. We borrowed two shotguns from our armory and with our M-1 carbines still slung across our shoulders “just in case”, set out and began a stealthy browse through that still-beautiful countryside, enjoying the sense of freedom which made us think of a different time and place. I actually doubted my friend’s assurance that game birds survived in that fought-over area – not least because he was a Chicago-boy; how would he know.
The landscape in which we found ourselves was in sharp contrast to the rice paddy country near our compound, with rounded and grassy hillocks alternating with shallow valleys. Here and there we would come across hand-made Korean grave stones – usually shaped by nature but graven with epitaphs unreadable to us, but no less eloquent for that. (We had been told that the distance of burial between the valley and the hilltop was indicative of the status that person had attained in life.)
I can’t recall how long we had been afield when we began to hear voices raised in some kind of chant. Rounding a ridge top, we found ourselves looking down on a strange sight. A group of a dozen or more Koreans dressed in white – the traditional mourning color – circled around a newly-dug grave singing a dirge-like song while hurling shovelfuls of earth into the excavated rectangle, after which three or four of them would climb down onto the fresh soil and begin jumping up and down in time with the singing, repetitively. Reforming the circle, a bottle would be passed around, its’ obvious contents helping to explain the increasing pleasure which seemed to mark the ceremony before the shoveling would resume.
Airman Cook and I, unseen but grandly entertained put some distance between ourselves and the farm people, and proceeded on the hunt, certain that the Korean method of saying “goodbye” was far more sensible than the American way.
Heading back the way we had come, we separated so that the hill line was safely between us. Moments after my friend’s shotgun blast broke the silence, a pheasant on my side took off nearly from under foot, and we knew the gods who had been called down by the 2000-year-old reenactment we had witnessed, had rewarded our silent attendance with an unexpected “Thank You!”
That evening the two of us sat down to orange-glazed pheasant breast (actually three of us including the co-conspiring Mess Sergeant) while our envious compatriots dined on SOS!
In a time and place where happy experiences were not exactly an everyday event, my memory of that strange day of pheasants and funerals creeps into some two A.M. hour of wakefulness and I am a young warrior again.