After the Korean War had ended with an armistice in July 1953, people went busy for reconstruction of the post-war devastation. And general public, mostly poor by losing their wealth by war, had no time to have a leisure time listening to or see the entertaining shows.
A 25-year-old Mr. Shin was a trumpeter before he was employed as a concrete driller and dynamite blaster by Morrison-Knudson International of the United States at Hwacheon hydro dam reconstruction project in Gangwon Province in 1957. After dinner he went to river side near the employee barracks and practiced his music lesson. He blew sad classical tones mostly and airy jazz in other times echoing in the star-studded sky and dark mountains. It was a tranquil moment for Korean workers as well as for American technicians. As I was the supervisor of the drilling/dynamite department, Shin taught me the basics of how to produce buzzing sound into the mouthpiece and pushing down on three piston valves located on the top tube of his brass instrument.
When the construction of the dam was completed in 1959, everyone had to leave the dam site losing their job. One Christmas evening I met Shin in a tea house in Myeong-dong, Seoul. He told me he was accepted as a trumpeter of a jazz band that would perform music and dance entertainment for the U.S. Military personnel in various camps at Yongsan Garrison, Camp Casey, Camp Red Cloud, K-6, Osan Air Base, etc.
There were thousands of men and women vocalists, musicians and dancers who had no place to display their talents had been overflowing in the down town tea houses looking for work. In the meantime, the United Service Organizations (USO) at Camp Kim with the slogan of “Home Away from Home,”
then had noticed that those out of job Korean entertainers were quite skilled and knew how quickly they can imitate American folk songs and jazz music, and asked Korean entertainment enterprises such as Hwayang and 20th Universal to select and supply them to entertain U.S. Force personnel stationed in Korea.
The Korean commercial enterprises jumped up for the fine business opportunity and set up an evaluation committee and conducted auditions for the musicians, singers, and dancers. They have graded the candidates’ skill; A for good, B for acceptable and C for disqualified. Those who got the A grade had been assigned at the theaters in Yongsan Garrison or USOM Club in Seoul and the Bs were assigned to the front line military camps. The auditions were severe as to check on English pronunciation, expression of emotion, showmanship and costumes.
Trumpeter Shin told me that the American music he had played most often on the stages for the USO shows included such songs as; Just in time, Cheek to cheek, I want to go home, My funny Valentine, Star dust, Cotton fields, I love you, and so on.
And the Korean singers who had given the American soldiers joy and jubilation and in other times wetting their cheeks in home sick when they sang “I want to go home.” Those show-folks were including; Kim Sisters, Patti Kim, Hyun Mi, Yun Bok-hee, Lee Bong-jo (saxophonist), Choi Hee-jun, Han Myong-suk, Kim chu-ja, and so on. Many of them later had become famous entertainer in the Korean entertainment world.
Fast forwarding to April 1966, I’d casually encountered the trumpeter Shin at Majestic Hotel on the Tudo Street by the shore of the Saigon River in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). He was driving a black Mercedes Benz and gained weight around his waist and looked rich. Shin invited me to lunch at a bistro. Two small black lizards were creeping on the white ceiling above our table and I wondered what would happen if one of them drops into my bowel of hors d’oeuvre.
Now the rich trumpeter Shin, after he had learned how to entertain U.S. Military personnel, had organized in Seoul a small dancing troupe and toured U.S. Military camps in Qui Nhon, Nah Trang Bases, Tan Son Nhut, An Khe Air Bases, etc. in the peak of the Vietnam War. His troupe was consisted mostly of young Korean girl dancers and some men musicians including himself as the major trumpeter. Everything went well until when scantily dressed girl dancers were dancing on the stage built at Qui Nhon, a soldier in the audience started shooting his handgun randomly toward the stage not aiming anyone particular. Some audience soldiers quickly jumped over the shooter and pressed him down in the uproar of the temporarily set up theater. A bullet slightly scratched a thigh of dancing girl who collapsed on the floor, and she was immediately taken to a field hospital. Two days later she walked out of the hospital without clutch but with a large patch of band-aid on her wound covered by her skirt. Mr. Shin then got very busy signing a lot of papers and injured dancer was compensated with an unusually large sum of indemnity. Mr. Shin himself too was paid a large sum in the U.S. dollar for the disturbance of his entertaining business. Shin didn’t disclose the amounts but he looked very happy. He sent all the girls and musicians back to Seoul as the compensation monies the girl and he had received were enough to go home.
The trumpeter then added before he stepped out of the diner into the burning tropical sunlight of the hustle and bustles of Saigon street filled by motorcycles and rickshaw-pullers; “It was an amazing scene for the U.S. soldiers braved to protect my girls risking their lives in the turmoil of gun shots. By t
he way, I was told later that that soldier had some kind of a mental disorder.”
A few months after Shin’s troupe had left Vietnam, Bob Hope’s USO show troupe landed on the Long Binh U.S. Military base.
In order to welcome them an army lieutenant climbed up the field stage and presented a grift, a pair of field helmets tied side by side, to a beautiful American actress (either Raquel Welch or Ann Margaret, but not Marilyn Monroe) who was famous with her large bosoms, saying “We thought this is the best gift we c
ould give you here in Vietnam!” She thanked and wore the tandem tied two helmets over her chest, evoking a hubbub of battle cry from thousands of the battle tired U.S. soldiers.
By Nam Sang-so (firstname.lastname@example.org)