I landed at Kimpo Army Airfield, along with about fifty other GIs, in June of 1968. On the right side of the runway were jet fighters lurking in sandbagged revetments and on the left a row of Quonset huts painted olive drab. After running us through a maze of shots and personnel in-processing, we were loaded onto green army buses and driven past a ROK Army machine gun nest into the countryside of the ancient country once known as the Land of the Morning Calm.
Rice paddies, stretching for acres; waves of tall, iridescent green shoots interrupted only by the occasional white crane flapping its way lazily into a blue sky. Little boys rode the backs of oxen. Farm houses seemed to be made of mud brick and were topped, improbably, by bundles of straw thatch. I thought I had entered the land of the Brothers Grimm.
After a couple of days at ASCOM, the Army Support Command, we were once again loaded onto a green army vehicle, this one smaller, and after crossing the Third Han River Bridge, I caught my first glimpse of the ancient city of Seoul. People bustled everywhere. Grandmothers in long skirts hauling grandchildren on their backs, men bent beneath the weight of A-frames laden with charcoal briquettes, bicyclists leaning all their weight onto pedals in order to propel their impossibly heavy cargo.
And suddenly a world of lawns and straight roads and two-story brick buildings, and men in uniform marching briskly down cement sidewalks. “Yongsan Compound,” the driver told us.
At Headquarters Company 8th Army I was assigned to a bunk in a barracks and introduced to a man who said he would shine my shoes and make my bed and do my laundry, all for the exorbitant fee of about thirty dollars a month. He was older than me and world weary and I didn’t quibble as he helped me stow my gear.
I was assigned to 8th Army PAO, the Public Affairs Office. My job was to monitor the Hapdong and Donghua Korean news services. I collected and collated all stories that had to do with the U.S. Forces Korea or the 8th U.S. Army or any of our subordinate units. This wasn’t difficult since all the stories were already translated into English. The spelling and syntax were a little rough but it was my job to spruce it up. Once I had the stories in a pile I re-typed them and organized them into a newsletter that was distributed throughout the country, to all the army and air force and naval units. It was called the Korean News Roundup.
About half the stories dealt with crime. About ninety percent were American-on-Korean crime. The remaining ten percent, maybe less, told of Korean-on-American crime. I’d take the stories over to the 8th Army MP Station and compare them to something called SIRs, Serious Incident Reports. Then I’d input the SIR number (if one existed) at the end of the story. The official MP version of events often differed from the Korean news report. Usually by downplaying the brutality and the culpability of the American GIs.
I didn’t know it then but decades later I’d become a mystery writer whose subject was, and is, GI crime in the Republic of Korea. Luckily, I write fiction because I didn’t have the foresight to save any of the dozens of copies of the Korean News Roundup I edited. But the broad subjects I remember: GIs robbing cab drivers, GIs beating up business girls, GI trashing chop houses, GIs raping innocent women. It wasn’t a pretty picture but I consoled myself by realizing that most of us weren’t that bad. But some of us, too many, had become disoriented by this strange world we’d been thrust into and had forgotten who we were. Occasionally, we became beasts.
In December 1968 the Pueblo Crew was released from captivity in North Korea. Eighth Army PAO was inundated by Stateside reporters, some of them famous names on TV. It was our job to drive them around, make sure they had access to phones and typewriters and that they knew where and when the Command briefings would be held.
After Commander Lloyd Bucher and his men crossed the Bridge of No Return and were flown back to the States, things returned to normal. Back to the Korea News Roundup. But then, from about February until April, 1969, I was temporarily assigned as a reporter for the Pacific Stars and Stripes. I was sent up to the JSA to cover a MAC Secretariat meeting, I took notes at a speech given by the UNC Commander, General Bonesteel, I was granted a one-on-one interview with Speaker of the House Carl Albert (D-Oklahoma) who was there on a congressional junket. But the greatest privilege of my short tenure as a reporter for the Stars and Stripes was an interview I was granted with a retired veterinarian named Doctor Frank Schofield.
He was sick, dying they said. In a Korean hospital. When I sat down next to his bed he was wearing a coat and tie but looked frail. He held up a bony hand and we shook. “I’m not a fan of America,” he told me. “Nothing about your country sits quite right.”
I knew I couldn’t put that in the article.
Doctor Schofield was a Canadian, originally from Great Britain. He’d been performing veterinary and missionary work in Korea back in 1919, just before the Korean people rose up against the illegal Japanese occupation. On March 1, 1919 the entire country went on strike and took to the streets in an uprising that became known as the Sam-il Movement. Sam-il for March 1st.
The Japanese police and military put down the insurrection brutally. Many people were executed but a foreigner like Doctor Schofield, who had written and published both photographs and articles delineating the grievances of the Korean people, was merely detained and then deported. Ordered by the Japanese never to return. But his Korean comrades in arms never forgot him. Fifty years later, during the 50 year anniversary of the Sam-il Movement, on March 1, 1969, Doctor Schofield was invited back by the Korean government. An honored guest, he actually sat on the podium during the national memorial service as President Pak Chung-hee addressed the country. He was so highly thought of by the Koreans that when he passed away a few months later, he became the first foreigner ever to be interred in the Korean National Cemetery.
In our interview, Doctor Schofield talked mainly about Korea and the bravery of the Korean people. Try as I might, I couldn’t coax him into telling me anything about the articles he’d published in newspapers and magazines throughout the world and the attention he’d brought to the Korean cause. He was impatient at my questions and waved me away. The story, he said, wasn’t about him. It was about the dead. They were the brave ones.
In April of 1969 a U.S. Navy EC-121 reconnaissance plane was shot down over the East Sea by the North Koreans and thirty-one American sailors were killed. For a while, we thought the newly-elected President, Richard Nixon, would declare war on the regime to the north. In the end, he didn’t. Vietnam, it seemed, had absorbed all his attention.
In June, 1969, I left Korea and left the army. I thought I could forget the place. I couldn’t. Later I reenlisted and came back, this time throwing myself into the study of the Korean language and the ancient culture and traveling to every out of the way place I could find time to visit. I ended up serving a total of five tours in Korea during a more than twenty-year army career. Three of those tours were on Yongsan Compound. And even when I was stationed up north, I visited Seoul every chance I got.
In January 1991, while still on active duty, I published my first story featuring 8th Army CID agents George Sueño and Ernie Bascom. It was called The Blackmarket Detail and appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine . Since then George and Ernie have appeared in twelve novels and at least two dozen short stories. The first novel, Jade Lady Burning, was published in 1992 and became a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. The most recent novel, The Nine-tailed Fox, came out in October 2017.
George and Ernie roam all over Korea but they always start their investigations on Yongsan Compound and they always return there.
In my heart, so do I.
Martin Limón, November 12, 2017, Lynnwood, Washington, U.S.A.