By Tae-hyok Kim
The evening of June 27, 1950, was raining cats and dogs, and the Korean War was in its third day. A series of distant booms were heard. A few seconds later, huge flashes, like lightings, came from the top of Namsan (South Hill), and brightened the camp for a split second. Ear-splitting explosions followed.
The windows of our barracks rattled violently. Enemy artillery bombardments! The heavy rain made these explosions more spectacular. This fantastic drama continued a couple of hours, then slowed.
My camp was located in Sam-gak-chi (三角池) at the western foothill of Namsan that stood in the southern part of the city. Han River skirted the southern edge of the hill from the east to the west.
One soldier exclaimed, “The enemy tanks are already in Miari. It is only six or seven kilometers away. Oh, my God! My parents live there.”
Major Lee, the regiment deputy commander, appeared and gravely hollered, “Sergeant (Sgt.) Park, organize a squadron and report to me immediately!”
Sgt. Park responded, “Yes, sir.” He loudly called names, “Sergeant Kim, Corporal Kim, . …,. Stand up and make a line!” All nine of us were administrative personnel from the regiment headquarters company. He reported to the major, “Sir, altogether nine.”
The major ordered, “At ease! You have volunteered to attack the North Korean tanks.” Actually none of us volunteered; we were selected. He continued, “According to the latest intelligence, the North Korean invaders are already in the northeast outskirts of Seoul. It’s only about six kilometers north of us. We have to stop them. Sgt. Park will be your commander.”
We were stunned and scared. None of us had ever seen a real tank, and most of us had little fighting experience except Sgt. Park and two others who had fought guerillas before the war. We wondered how we could possibly destroy the mighty enemy tanks with our M1 rifles.
Then Major Lee opened one of the boxes in front of him and picked up a sleek, round cylinder, about one foot long, and a cartridge of rifle ammunition. He said, “This is a grenade thrower, and this cartridge contains eight shells which are filled with gunpowder, but no bullets.
You sit down and hold your rifle between your thighs at a 45 degree angle, then mount the thrower on the tip of your M1 rifle, load the cartridge in the magazine of your rifle. When an enemy tank approaches within 100 feet, you aim at the track of the tank and pull the trigger.
The grenade will destroy the wheel, and the tank will not move. Do you understand?”
Major Lee asked, “Have you ever seen a grenade thrower before?”
We responded in one voice, “No sir.” I raised my hand and said, “Sir, I saw one in an American war movie.”
He said, “It’s not much at all. Anyway, remember what I told you. You will be doing all right. Get rest until I issue an order!” and he left.
I wondered how in the world, without decent training we could possibly destroy the enemy’s mighty tanks? How many of us would return alive? This mission was insane. No one talked. Perhaps the others had the same thoughts.
A few minutes later the major returned with a bottle of soju (rice wine) and a small wine cup. He ordered us in a line and handed the cup to Sgt. Park. He filled the cup with soju for the sergeant. He drank it and passed the cup to the next soldier. The major poured the wine in the cup for the soldier.
This ritual was repeated all the way to the last soldier. Then he gave each of us a Wharang cigarette and personally lit it. It was just like a Japanese Kamikaze pilot send-off ceremony. After all, he had served in the Japanese Army during the World War II.
I was not a drinker or a smoker, but I drank the wine because this might be the last night of my life. It tasted sour. For the same reason I puffed my cigarette a couple of times. It was bitter, but I inhaled. Suddenly I was choking and my breath became short. I coughed violently and gasped for air. I tumbled on the floor and continued to cough. Tears welled in my eyes.
Sgt. Park and a few guys came to help me, and said in a frightened voice, “What’s matter, what’s matter, Tae-hyok?” The sergeant held my head and offered me water. I managed to drink it slowly. It eased my coughing.
I drank more. A few minutes later, my cough subsided. I took a deep breath, and sat upright against the wall. I said in a weak voice, “Thank you guys for caring me.” That was my last cigarette.
They said, “Welcome! Glad you are alive. We thought you were dying before the enemy could kill you,” and they laughed. Even the major came and asked if I was OK.
The major said, “Listen to me. Thank you for volunteering for this mission. This is an extremely important mission to defend the capital. Destroy as many enemy tanks as you can.” He advised us to get some sleep and wait for further notice, and then he returned to his office.
We all lay on the bare floor using our army backpacks as pillows and tried to sleep. Then a guy broke the silence and said, “Hey, Sgt. Park, have you ever used that grenade stick before?”
Sgt. Park answered, “Hell, no. I don’t know what the f--- it is. Just shut up, and get some sleep!”
The other guy murmured philosophically, “My sergeant doesn’t know, I don’t know, we all don’t know. We all will die tonight.”
The sergeant shouted, “I told you Shut your mouth and get to sleep.”
As the night fell deeper, my heart grew heavier thinking about the imminent suicide mission. I thought about my turbulent short life and my parents in North Korea, and silently said, “Goodbye, Mom and Dad.” I coaxed sleep, but it didn’t come.
We all silently waited for the fateful order, and wished it would never come. Gradually, fatigue overcame us, and we fell asleep one by one.
Fantastic lightening, and a series of earth-shattering BOOMS woke us. The windows rattled, and glass fell to the ground and broke. We jumped out of sleep. Sgt. Park murmured ominously, “Those BOOMS are too big to be artillery bombardments. It’s something else. I will ask the major.” He went to the major’s office and called, “Major Lee, Major Lee.” No answer came. He came back and shouted, “No one is in the building. Let’s go outside.”
Someone asked, “Sergeant, what shall we do with these boxes of grenade throwers?”
Sgt. Park answered, “Leave them. We are not taking them with us. No one knows how to use them anyway.” He hollered urgently, “Let’s get out to the parade field!” We did and huddled in the middle of the dimly lit parade ground.
The whole camp was quiet except for the heavy rain and the intermittent enemy artillery bombardments. We nervously looked each other and asked, “Where did they go? No one is around.”
Sgt. Park cursed, “Goddamn, they are all gone. They evacuated without telling us. F---ing major. Let’s get out of here before too late.” He led us to the main gate. A lone sentry was posted at the gate. Sgt. Park asked the sentry if he had seen Deputy Commander Major Lee.
He answered that the deputy commander and the headquarters’ personnel had gone to Sam-gak-chi Circle (三角地).
Sgt. Park asked him again, “Did the major say anything to you?”
He said, “Nothing, Sergeant.”
Sgt. Park cursed the major again, “That son of bitch!” He continued, ”No one is around in the camp. Soldier, you better come with us.” Without saying anything, he joined with us.
Sam-gak-chi Circle was only a couple of hundred feet from the gate. When we arrived the circle, we saw that hundreds of frightened refugees and numerous vehicles crowded the circle and the main boulevard that led to Han River Bridge. The vehicles crawled at snail’s pace toward the bridge.
Sgt. Park asked a refugee, “Sir, what’s going on here?”
He nervously answered, “Sergeant, a rumor says that the enemy has already occupied Donam Dong. It’s only about four kilometers north of here. Didn’t you hear the big BOOM? They say the bridge has been blown up.
Anyway I am going to the bridge to check if it was blown up,” and he hurriedly led his family in the direction of the bridge. He had a wife and three young children with him.
To be continued
ⓒ 보스톤코리아(http://www.bostonkorea.com), 무단전재 및 재배포 금지