Until 1914 and the beginning of Europe’s “Great War” the world hadn’t had to invent the term total war. Armed conflict was historically fought, won and lost and territories secured by armies, and navies with whatever mechanical wonders were possessed at the time. Civilian populations though certainly at risk, were usually not the specific target of the killing. By 1917 and the signing of the Armistice agreement, 7 million of the 17 million war deaths were non-military, and Germany alone had 20 million newly-minted orphans. And that was just a preview of WWII statistics just ahead.
Although it lasted only three years, the Korean War (1950 – 1953) chalked up more casualties per unit of time and greater destruction than any other U.S.conflict. In addition to the loss of 10% of their pre-war population, North and South Koreans saw ten million of their families permanently divided.
If there is one picture indelibly etched in the memories of the mostly-unprepared young Americans who went there to fight for others, it will be of the small parentless children, crying beside the dusty roadways and within the flattened and burning villages of a former land of farmers and fisher folk where half of the livestock and all of the fishing fleet had been destroyed, and starvation walked the ruined land. It is believed that 100,000 of these “children of war” existed in the U.S. occupied zone.
We were admonished not to “interfere” with these wandering waifs, many of which had trudged behind our retreating, then advancing forces up and down a rugged war-seared land the size of Utah, in all kinds of weather. American G.I.s cannot be constrained by a mere General from doing what nature whispers in their hearts and ears, and soon almost every military bivouac or campsite had its own compliment of “illegal” orphans who shared our tents, bunkers, G.I. blankets, “SOS” chow and everyday dangers. We invented between us an entirely new language – a combination of Japanese, Korean and G.I. “Jive”. Even though individual troops came and went and mobile headquarters moved location frequently, the continuation of unwritten “articles of understanding” kept “our kids” secure and largely unknown to higher authority.
Inasmuch as most of us were barely out of our teens ourselves and with young brothers and sisters back home, these “children of war” softened our hearts in the midst of all the fears and uncertainties which filled our nights and days and added something I’ve only come to appreciate in recent years to the sense of “family” the unusual “brotherhood” the elite nature of our assignment had already breathed into us.
My very small outfit was home to two such “mascots”, the youngest of whom – Sikoshi Joe – age 8-9 involved me in this unusual G.I “Family Triad” since I replaced the Sergeant who had played a role prior to my arrival. His exact origins were a mystery, although it was believed he had escaped from the North after seeing his family executed. His legs were covered with healed burn scars, probably from napalm. Most of the local villagers were known to have lived north of the wire our unit straddled as the base camp for the mountain-top radar outpost we served. Whatever the case, he was now ours and nobody was going to take him away.
South Korean officials who know me today always express surprise at the sense of intimacy with Korea and Koreans I apparently display; they see it as an unusual aspect of my total experience there. If they knew me better, they would probably notice that this connection is probably most in evidence when the Children of War are in my thoughts. As I raise the flags of the two countries over my Utah home place tomorrow in recognition of the armistice which brought an end to that war on July 27, 1953, I will be wondering about Sikoshi Joe and the thousands of others who were given a future thanks to the G.I. Mascot Program and the love of caring American boys all those years ago.