Monday, November 12, 2007

The Other Side of Oz...

A friend of mine and me were talking the other day and he was relating a story about a surreal situation he had found himself in. When he finished his tale, he asked me if I had ever found myself in that situation. I told him this:

Yeah, I have been in some strange places, all right. I remember one night some time ago, lying in an ambush in the American sector of the DMZ in Korea.

We had set up around the Pagoda there, upon the birm that surrounded it. It was the monsoon season and it was pouring rain like a cow pissin' on a flat rock. Even in that heat, at 3 in the morning, we were soaked to the bone and chilled. I had just laid back down in my position after checking my men out, making sure they were awake and ok. I had a clacker in each hand to the two Claymore mines set out to cover the kill zone of our ambush. There had been several recent attempts at infiltrating North Korean Special Forces Teams through our sector and we were quite vigilant.

Even over the drumming of the rain, you could clearly hear the blasting loud speakers of the North Koreans along their fence line some several hundred meters away. My team leader was on one side of me and my KATUSA (Korean Augmentation to the US Army) was on the other, laid out prone like me, our bellies in the mud and wet grass. I was raised up on my forearms watching for any possible movement of the enemy in my kill zone. I leaned over and asked Sergeant Kim, the KATUSA, "Just what the hell are they singing about in that opera crap anyway?"

"Come to the North, we live in paradise over here. Leave your poverty and burdens there and come and join the good times to be had over here. Our fearless leader, Kim Il Sung, will prevail in all of our struggles and insure peace and tranquility to all in the North," Kim said.

Or some old bullshit just about like that. I was lying there thinking about what he had told me and my mind went back to my time on Guard Post Collier.

GP Collier was a man-made mound of earth that rose up out of the rice paddies in the middle of the American sector of the DMZ. Chain-link covered trenches lined the perimeter of the compound and contained a number of fighting positions that we would occupy every day at dawn and dusk for 'Stand-to'. These are the times of the day when attacks were most expected. Fields of fire had been cleared for several hundred meters beyond the chain-link/concertina wire fence that surrounded us. Just inside the fence, and out of reach of Sappers, was a ring of Claymore mines around the perimeter. Outside of the compound were several strategically located LP’s (listening post) that were manned 24/7. We were housed in an underground bunker and had our own platoon-size mess hall there for hot chow. Best chow I had while I was in the Army; chow the only highlight of our day. There was a TV/VCR in the mess hall. How many times have YOU seen Animal House? Or read the same Louis L’Amour book over and over? Home Sweet Home for the month we were there.

A few weeks before this ambush at the Pagoda, my team had pulled guard post duty up there and we provided 24/7 surveillance for the Battalion and the whole 2nd Infantry Division. There was another guard post too, GP Ouellette, that was the twin to ours and several klicks (kilometers) away. We had a tower in the center of the GP that housed radios to the other GP, Company Commander, Battalion HQ, Division HQ and Divarty/CAS (Division Artillery/Close Air Support). Also in the tower was a pair of very powerful ship-to-shore binoculars, like the navy uses, to assist us in our observations.

We could see a big, modern-looking city across the border to the north. Lots of buildings and high-rises. At the edge of the city, on our side, you could see a giant statue of Kim Il Sung and a large North Korean Flag the size of several football fields. But something was just not right. It was hard to put a finger on it until you watched it for a while. But we figured it out and what they were doing there. This was the place we called Propaganda City.

I had the post in the tower many mornings just before Stand-to was called and spent a lot of time looking through those big binos towards the north. Every morning, about an hour before daylight, you could see big convoys of buses entering the city and dropping off hundreds of passengers at various places. Then the buses would exit the city and life began to come alive in Propaganda City. You could see people walking and riding bicycles, driving little plywood cars and trucks around town. Going in buildings and out of them. Just generally giving the impression that it was a thriving metropolis and business was good. But something was just not right, you know? Kind of a gut feeling you get.

I was in the tower several evenings after Stand-to was over and looked to the north again through the big ship-to-shores. The convoy of buses that had dropped the inhabitants off that morning would come back after dark, load up all the people they had brought that morning and take them back out of the city to their little villages in the countryside. Only a skeleton crew was left in place to turn lights off and on throughout the night and drive around town in the little fake cars to lend to the illusion that this was an actual going concern. I gotta tell you, I stood there amazed at the lengths these people were going to, to perpetrate such a visible fraud on the rest of the world. I actually felt kind of insulted that they thought so little of our intelligence to even try something that asinine. The whole routine was repeated every morning, day in, day out.

Several klicks to the rear of the city were two separate ridgelines of mountains, separated in the middle by a large gap between them. We were told that on the other side of these mountains sat 10 North Korean Divisions of Armor and Infantry poised to invade the south at a moment’s notice. A ribbon of concrete appeared on the horizon from between these two ridges and ran south to the edge of the North Korean fence. It was a super-highway, maybe 24 lanes wide, that these divisions would take to the DMZ when they came to overrun us. Yup, you heard me right, overrun us. Our mission was simple. Call higher, inform them that the balloon had gone up, and kill as many as we could before we died in place. We knew that 10 Divisions was about 400-500 thousand soldiers and we had maybe 4-5 thousand soldiers north of the Imjim River on the DMZ. We could rest assured that the only bridge over the river would be gone within seconds of an invasion, as would be our HQ and Divarty, just south of the river. We were to hold in place, disrupt and destroy as best we could until we were killed or captured. The former preferable to the latter. Simple, like I said. But simple almost never means easy in war.

My mind came back to where I was, lying there in the rain, when I felt something on my hands there in front of me. I looked down at my fists balled around the clackers and froze in terror. There, stretched across the backs of both my hands, was the dark, olive drab form of a Mamushi, an ultra-deadly viper common to Korea. It was about a foot or so away from my face as it slowly inched across my hands. I was sure it could feel and hear my heart pounding in my throat as my breath remained frozen in my lungs. I am fairly sure you could have cut titanium washers out of my asshole at that moment. It slowly moved off my hands and onto the hands of my Team Leader there beside me. I could not warn him until it was off of me and then it was too late. He opted for a response completely opposite of mine. He came up off the ground like a piece of spring steel as he fell backwards down the birm we were on. The snake sailed through the air to Purdition, I suppose, at the end of his flailing arms. He rolled down the birm, found his feet like a cougar and proceeded to jump up and down screaming!

“Fuck this shit! I don’t need this fuckin’ shit! Fuck this shit.”

I jumped up and hit the bottom of the birm at a dead run. I covered his mouth with my hands and began to tell him in loud whispers that it was ok, he was ok He gradually calmed down as I held him and called out to the rest of the men that it was ok. I surely didn’t need any more panic than we already had. Tears rain down my soaked cheeks as I tried to regain my composure from laughing so hard. When he had calmed down enough for me to take my hands off his mouth, I looked at him and said,

“Poor ol’ snake. He didn’t stand a chance. I bet you broke his neck.”

Well, now he was laughing too. I looked at my watch and it was time to go anyway, so we packed it in and headed out to our pick-up point. This was just another day in the life of…

And I felt quite at home there in the surreal world that surrounded us. I spent 372 days there and don't regret a minute of it. You know, being an infantry soldier is a hard life, but it does have its rewarding moments. It’s hard to have a good time in some of the places you find yourself in, but we always did our best. Those were the finest bunch of men I ever knew and I was their leader. When I left there I received an Army Commendation medal and a tattoo with our team motto on it. The men bought it for me and they each got one too. Now that medal was all well and good, but that tattoo has no price. It is one of my most prized possessions.

Maybe someday I’ll tell you all about my point man and the Bengal tiger, if you want to hear it.

Copyright © 2006 Mike Lawson

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