‘5,000-year-old culture collides with gaggle of knucklehead GIs’
By Martin Limon
For me, it all started on Yongsan Compound. A place where a 5,000-year-old culture collided with a gaggle of knucklehead GIs (myself included) who could barely find Korea on a map. The result was occasionally tragic, sometimes beautiful, but always provided an opportunity to become someone better.
In the early 1970s, Yongsan Compound was a happening place. Korea was still emerging from the post-war era and the citizenry was buzzing over the recently completed Seoul-to-Busan highway and the high-rise buildings newly peeking above the skyline of the capital city. Meanwhile, Yongsan Compound was open _ relatively speaking _ to the world. The main gate was nothing more than a roll-back chain-link fence manned by a lone MP. At the Pedestrian Gate, a contract guard checked Korean base workers and military members and waved them through. So unlike the massive defensive structures protecting the gates today.
Yongsan Compound was seen as a cornucopia of tax-free luxuries: Johnny Walker Black, Kent cigarettes, Stateside staples such as Folger’s freeze-dried crystals, S&H pure cane sugar, canned salted pork shoulder, even jars of maraschino cherries. Massive amounts of these imports were transported off base to help supply the appetites of a newly burgeoning Korean middle class.
Patti Kim performed at the USOM Club, the Grand Old Opry at the NCO Club, and some of the best Korean singers and bands put on shows at military venues throughout the country. Politicians and chaebol owners hobnobbed with generals on the manicured lawns of the 8th Army Golf Course. Expert taekwondo instructors took students through their paces at Trent Gym. Night classes leading to degrees were offered by the University of Maryland Far East Division.
But there was trouble in paradise. Crime, not only on base but off-base. Theft, embezzlement, strong-armed robberies, rape and even murder, most often perpetrated by GIs on the Korean public.
This was the genesis for the series of novels I was eventually to write, beginning with “Jade Lady Burning” in 1992, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and most recently “The Nine-Tailed Fox” published by Soho Press in October 2017. My protagonists are George Sueno and Ernie Bascom, two 8th Army CID agents who because of Sueno’s Korean language skills and Bascom’s ability to blend in with lowlifes of any nationality, come to take on cases of increasingly ominous portent. They’ve appeared in 12 books so far, plus a short stories collection. It all comes from my years spent in Yongsan.
Martin Limon is a full-time writer who retired from the army with 20 years of military service. He spent 10 years in Korea on three tours: 1968-69, 1973-76 and 1977-80. Visit yongsanlegacy.org to learn more about the history of Seoul’s disappearing U.S. garrison or to contribute your own memories.