Learning English with an American GI

Contributor: Bill Morgenstein

As the U.S. military relocates out of Yongsan Garrison, Yongsan Legacy aims to archive the living memories of those who served, worked and lived there.…

Topic: cultural exchange, People
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As the U.S. military relocates out of Yongsan Garrison, Yongsan Legacy aims to archive the living memories of those who served, worked and lived there. This is one of them. ― ED.

By Bill Morgenstein

The day the Korean War broke out, four of us went to the Marine recruiting station to volunteer. My friend Lou and I were too young but the other two were accepted. Sadly these brave Marines would both be killed at the famous Chosin Reservoir battle near Hagaru-ri. Eventually Lou would end up in the Air Force and me in the army.

In 1957, I debarked at Incheon and along with my good friend Jimmy Anglisano, I anxiously awaited my assignment.

After a few days I was lucky to hear I was being assigned to EASCOM (Eighth Army Support Command) in Seoul as an intelligence clerk, working for General Hannigan.

After receiving my security clearance (that’s a story for another time), I was billeted in a brick barracks (as opposed to the tents in one of the divisions). A few months later a sergeant asked me if on my off hours I would be willing to teach young Koreans, and some other Koreans military English. I said I would be delighted and also had much to learn from them.

The sessions were in the evenings and the weekends, either at the Chosun Ilbo newspaper or the Ewha school. From the start I was greatly impressed at the speed they learned and their terrific hard work.

My students had never seen a left-handed person and thought I was joking when I wrote with my left hand on the blackboard. They laughed easily and taught me much about Korean culture and traditions. I asked why there were monkeys on the older buildings still standing. They explained it was to ward off evil and they were not fond of them. I would then jokingly put pictures of monkeys on the blackboard as they entered the class. They would then feign total fright.

On a different occasion I received a terrible lesson when I patted a female student on the head to show appreciation for her work. They were appalled by this and it took some doing to explain my sorrow at not knowing their customs and how Western customs were different.

We became very close and they held several parties for me, especially after my son was born. They also took me on tours; one that stands in my mind was to a factory where people were sitting on the floor rubbing rust off tools and pipes. When I saw such dedication, I realized Korea would eventually prosper.

I received letters from them for a few years but sadly lost track of them all eventually. I wonder if one of them may see this article and contact me?

It was a most gratifying experience as I loved my students and for that matter the spirit of the Korean people.

Bill Morgenstein, center right, sits with his Korean students in the late 1950s. / Courtesy of Bill Morgenstein

Bill Morgenstein was born in Brooklyn in the 1930s. He was stationed in Yongsan Garrison 1957 to 1958. His life experiences are written in his autobiography “The crazy life of a kid from Brooklyn.” Visit www.thecrazylifeofbiil.com or YongsanLegacy.org to read more about the history of Seoul’s disappearing U.S. garrison or to contribute your own memories.