Searching for lost love in Hannam

Contributor: Kyung Lee

Following the path from Niblo Barracks that once led to the village, Breen vividly recalls singing “Oh My Darling, Clementine” in the Koreanized verses Marie had taught him, arousing immediate laughter from Korean passersby.

Topic: Cultural shock, love, People, Yongsan Legacy

George Breen holds a sign asking for help searching for Marie Hwang

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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.

Published on The Korea Times on 27th March 2018

If you’ve been in the alleys of Hannam-dong in Seoul in recent months, maybe you spotted a flyer showing a portrait of a woman that reads “Looking for My Love” in Korean, taped to a pole situated along an alley that once linked the back gate of the now demolished Hannam Village.

Flyer of Marie on a post in hannam-dong

The flyer, written and posted with a heavy heart, leaves a trace of the intimate memories, battered by memories of artillery shells and poor sanitary conditions, that one couple, then-U.S. Army service member George Breen and a woman he knew as Marie Hwang, shared between the summers of 1958 and 1959 in Hannam, east of modern-day Itaewon Station.
Now an 83-year-old grandfather living in Florida, Breen still kindles fond memories of Marie, devoting considerable time and effort to searching for her since their last correspondence in 1964 as well as retracing the rustic Korea he learned to love during his tour of duty.
Breen spent his days on work detail repairing military vehicle engines in shops operated by the 570th Ordnance Company (DAS), on the site that would become Niblo Barracks and later Hannam Village.
At 5 p.m., Breen would walk out the back gate following a dirt trail that ran alongside the compound to go see Marie. The houses are long gone, but the roads remain much the same; Marie lived in an alley across Itaewon-no, behind where an Audi dealership stands today.
“I remember how it did rain in Seoul,” he said. “The hill leading from the 570th into the village was muddy and difficult to climb, but I never missed a day walking up that hill to see Marie.”
Following the path that once led to the village, Breen vividly recalls singing “Oh My Darling, Clementine” in the Koreanized verses Marie had taught him, arousing immediate laughter from Korean passersby.
The villagers he met lived in improvised tin-roof huts with walls often riddled with wartime bullet holes, some of which were made from cardboard with mud piled around the base to keep out rainwater. But such hard living, according to Breen, didn’t dampen their spirits.
“Some families were so poor that the younger children wore no clothes during the warmer weather,” Breen said.
“Yet, through all this hardship, each time I would walk up the hill into the village, the children and adult civilians would have a smile for me. That’s strong people.”
He recalls Marie lived with her younger brothers, having lost their parents in the war.
He often brought canned foods and beer purchased on base, either for Marie’s home necessities or to resell for a considerable profit on the local black market.
Breen also savored the home-cooked meals Marie prepared, though off-duty service members were ordered not to eat anywhere other than the mess halls on base.
He recalls a cold winter night at Marie’s where he had to repair a charcoal heater that was leaking carbon monoxide into the room where they slept.
“Marie and I both came close to dying that night,” he said. “Heating with charcoal is a real no but that is all the Koreans could afford at that time.”
Events such as this did not, however, deter him from showing up in front of Marie’s sliding front door almost every day, a routine that certainly had its muddy and gas-filled struggles.
Breen recalls waking up next to her “first thing in the morning as she lay asleep,” and says “giving her a soft kiss without waking her brings big tears.”
Shortly after putting on his work clothes and giving Marie a brief goodbye kiss, Breen would return to his post by 7 a.m. for morning chow.
But in July 1959 Breen completed his tour and had to depart. One Sunday afternoon, they shared one last dance waiting for him to board a ship in Incheon.
“Marie that day would be the most beautiful woman that I would ever see,” he said. “Honest, true love shared between two young people torn apart!”
Reimagining his footsteps that can be traced back from the 570th to Marie’s, Breen added: “Surely my ghost was with you when you walked the same route I used.”

This image shows the front gate of Niblo Barracks in 1970 where George Breen served earlier. Marie Hwang lived on the
hill behind the base.

By Kyung Lee