Today, on a snow filled afternoon in Northville, Michigan, it seems like a good time to reflect back some 50 years ago when I served as a U.S. soldier in South Korea at Yongsan.
Although I was stationed there in 1969, my South Korean adventure actually began 7 years earlier in 1962. But before I dig in, let me digress and reflect on what a wonderful thing it is to be young. In youth nothing seems too difficult to accomplish. Just get up, get moving and the road ahead will take you to your destination. Sure, there may be some difficulties but so what…no pain, no pain…it’s full speed ahead.
In 1962, I was a college sophomore at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Illinois. In the fall of that year I received a letter from my identical twin brother, Joe. He was then serving in the U.S. Army stationed with the 7th Infantry Division – specifically, 1st Battle Group, 31st Infantry, Camp Casey, Republic of South Korea. My brother, Sgt. Joe, asked if the men in my fraternity (Delta Sigma Phi, Gamma Kappa chapter) could send some clothing to the orphans supported by his outfit, for Christmas.
It sounded like a good idea, so why not…get up and get going. In the early 1960’s it was my understanding that many orphans endured the cold winters with only the bare necessities of clothing. My fraternity brothers, fellow university students, and the good citizens of Macomb and Bushnell, Illinois, conducted a clothing drive in November, 1962, to help alleviate the problem.
Naturally, there was a good bit of organizing to do along with generating excitement.
The planning part was pretty straight forward and we accomplished the excitement part by planning a ‘kick off dance.’ In fact, we invited the President of the United States to it. That’s right, President Kennedy. Remember, youth knows no boundaries. Unfortunately, the President’s assistant (Ralph Dugan) sent regrets and mentioned, “The official demands of the President, particularly during the past few months, have been tremendous.” Hello! It was only the Cuban missile crisis of October 16-28, and the blockade which did not officially end until November 21st. Nevertheless, we did generate excitement with the rumor that JFK might be coming.
The project was very successful in that it produced 2 tons of warm clothing that fit into 60 large boxes.
Proceeds from the dance were used to defray the expense of shipping the clothing to Korea. We used a San Francisco APO address to avoid paying regular overseas charges; otherwise the cost would have been prohibitive. Once in Korea, the 7th Infantry Division made the clothing distribution to the orphanages under their sponsorship.
An interesting issue arose when we tried to give the orphanages the 80 dollars that was left over after all shipping expenses were paid. We were told by the Army that, “It’s very difficult to spend money on the Korean market for articles to be given to Koreans, and it involves a fantastic amount of bookkeeping and special authorizations.” Obstacles? No way…the excess cash eventually helped the An Hoong Orphanage buy two sewing machines.
The clothing project expanded over the next two years and it was officially called the Korean Orphan Drive. During this period, we added another 12,000 lbs. of clothing bringing the total to 16,000 lbs. all of it delivered to the seven orphanages sponsored by the 7th Infantry Division. Lots of thanks go to Major General David Gray, Commander of the Division who was a strong supporter.
I assume by now you’re asking how does this fit into the Yongsan Garrison? Briefly, as a result of the successful 3-year effort and the response from the soldiers and children in South Korea, the clothing drive expanded in 1965 to include the University of Illinois. Having completed my bachelor’s degree at Western Illinois University I enrolled at the University of Illinois for graduate work. Needless to say, my new Delta Sigma Phi fraternity brothers (Alpha Alpha chapter) were very enthusiastic about being included in the project.
In fact, U of I held a spectacular “kick-off” dance with over 2,400 students, faculty and community leaders in attendance. Their effort helped provide 10,000 lbs. of clothing along with $1,200 in net cash contributions which was equally divided among An Hoong, Han II Women’s Vocational, and Sip-Sung.
Due to the significant increase in the amount of clothing collected in 1965, the Office of the Chief of Staff, 8th U.S. Army at Yongsan Garrison now assumed the distribution function. In this way the clothing could be delivered throughout the country. Our efforts were also boosted in an important way by the backing and encouragement of the Commander of the 8th U.S. Army, General C. H. Bonesteel, III.The Korean Orphan Drive was clearly on a roll and in the fifth year we added Eastern Illinois University.
Since the prior four years achieved a total of 26,000 lbs. we decided to double it for the fifth year and lo and behold we hit that target. In addition, we netted $2,200 thanks to North American Van Lines (a big shipping company) who transported all the boxes for free to San Francisco and from there it was shipped to 8th Army. The excess money was used for worthy projects such as purchasing sewing machines, typewriters, and construction material for various orphanages and vocational schools.
One more thought as we’re almost done with the math, and then it’s onto the really good stuff recalling my days at Yongsan and visiting many of the orphanages. Over the next few years we added Millikan University, Northern Illinois University, Atlantic Christian College, University of Michigan and North Carolina State. To the best of my recollection, the combined effort over the entire 10-year period (1962-71) resulted in over 80 tons (160,000 lbs.) of warm, good quality clothing distributed to orphanages and charitable institutions by elements of the 8th U.S. Army. Importantly, this was made possible by the efficient and effective coordination conducted by the Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff (G-5) at Yongsan.
In 1968 I was drafted into the U.S. Army. After stints at Fort Campbell, Gordon and Jackson, I received orders in 1969 for deployment to the Republic of South Korea and was eventually assigned to G-5 (Colonel Charles Jefferies). Previously, we had frequent communications and when he learned I was assigned to Korea he said he would work hard to get me assigned to his office or to the Army Education Center. He won out. So, in addition to my regular duties at G-5 (such as driving the Colonel to Panmunjom and working on an Army handbook), I was able to visit many orphanages and institutions throughout Korea.
What a fabulous experience and the memories are as exciting today as they were 50 years ago.
The November 1968 clothing drive did not arrive in Korea (660 boxes weighting 32,000 lbs.) until May 1969. The boxes were stored in an Army warehouse at Inchon. Incidentally, a lot of the allocation that year went to the northwest area of Korea and some to the many offshore islands. Again, all distributions were made possible by G-5 and the soldiers serving at various military installations.
One of my first visits was to the An Hoong Orphanage in Dongduchong where the clothing drive was started. The next visit was to the Sip-Sung Leper Village (Bupyong) and then on to Sun Duk Won Orphanage (founded by Suk Yong Huk with her pension). Next, we visited Myong Jin Children’s Orphanage supported by soldiers of the 65th Medical Group. After a tour of Myong Jin, we were treated to an exhibition of singing and dancing by kindergarten-aged youngsters. That was followed by soldiers helping children open boxes and choosing clothes to put on. What a joy.
There were many other visits including the Village of Nullo-Ri and Papyong Children’s Home, the Inbo Orphange (Pusan), Bong Seong Tent School (Seoul), Yang-Gu Orphanage, Sam Sung Orphanage, Song Jook Won Orphanage, Sindo Veterans Village and the Tae Song Dong Freedom Village. (There I helped a woman with a pitch fork throw hay onto a 15-foot high circular mound…it was exhausting!)
Another interesting experience was an exchange of letters with Dr. Horace Underwood of Yonsei University. When asked what we could do to help the University he replied, “Send books and good ones.” So we sent some new ones on applied engineering, modern marketing, architectural design, and semiconductor design. Dr. Underwood was definitely a man with an eye toward the future.
Before closing, I owe a debt of gratitude to my Korean Tiger Club friends.In my spare time I was an advisor at the U.S. Information Service (USIS) Center in Seoul. My class on “Western Civilization” grew to some 60 college students who came from all parts of Seoul. Their club motto was: Today’s Informed Students – Tomorrow’s Enlightened Leaders. They helped me understand Korean culture by taking me to important places throughout Seoul including: Pongwun Sa Temple, the Dong-Goo Nung tombs, Dock Soo Palace including the National Museum, and To Pong Mountain. I also met and got to know two upcoming artists, Bae Yoong and Kim Foon. The trip to Ulsan to visit a Hyundai auto plant where they assembled KD (knock down) kits was also very enlightening.
Finally, in my opinion, no cultural experience would be complete without drinking beer from a plastic pail at a “mockly house” with college students, or partying with them after a soccer game. I cannot express in words my deep appreciation for those generous men and women of the Tiger Club.
That’s my shared history at Yongsan Garrison. What’s important to remember, after all is said and done, are the many thousands of people who touched the face of South Korea including: the citizens of the communities who donated clothing; the students and faculty at the universities who collected, sorted, boxed and provided financial help; the transportation companies who donated their trucks and railroad cars; and especially the soldiers, both American and Korean, who distributed the clothing throughout the country for a decade. As for me, I truly had a whirlwind experience with supercharged emotions at Yongsan.
One Korean friend told me back in 1969 that if you take a picture of someone, you will capture their soul. A part of it must be true because my thoughts often turn to my experiences in Korea and it seems like I’m still there today.
SP 5 Victor Leo
All photos have been provided by the author.