Class of '65

After action report, Korean DMZ.

First published by and then, Volume 19, 2017.

Robert Perron Stories, “Class of '‘65”

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Never fired a round, I told Crawford.

"Don't worry about it," he said. "You sure you know her by sight?"

We were between hooches back of the Blue Moon Club, an alleyway, hard-packed dirt, corrugated tin overhead, on either side platforms and sliding doors, inside each a square room, a working girl, a bed, a wardrobe. It was midday, not time for liberty, Crawford having cajoled a jeep and phony mission from the first sergeant. A few girls were about and beamed at Crawford, not me, not because I was black and he was white but because I was a specialist E-4 and he was a staff sergeant E-6. The girls knew their pay grades. One was in his face and I recognized her, hair dyed blond, folds clipped for the round-eye effect, older, thirties, worn out. Sergeant, she pitched, five dollar can do, good time.

"Hey," I said, "you know Lucy? Lucy, Eddie's yobo. Eddie, big guy. Blond like you." Yobo meant a steady girl, a sweetheart, paid by the month.

"Yeah I know. Why you want?" She led us a few doors down the alley and called out, "Yobosao. Soon-bok. Yobosao." Yobosao meant "hey." Soon-bok was Lucy's Korean name, her real name. The door to our front slid open. Eddie's yobo appeared in traditional wrap-around dress, not yet made up in mini-skirt and blouse. Like most of the girls, she kept her natural black hair and slanted eyes. Her nose flared and her skin color was closer to mine than Eddie's. Eddie was from the Midwest, Nebraska, North Dakota, somewhere, and was whiter than white. He liked to throw his arm over my shoulder because we were buddies, wouldn't happen back in the world, not in Nebraska or North Dakota, not even New Jersey, but it was okay, it felt good, I liked Eddie, and we would come into the ville together, that's how I knew his yobo.

Crawford said, "I don't know how to tell you. Eddie's dead." No reaction. He turned to blondie. "No understand?"

The two girls traded snatches of Korean. Blondie said, "So Eddie go home America. No take Soon-bok."

Crawford shook his head. "That's not it." He took the pose of a North Korean with a submachine gun. "Bap, bap, bap. Joe Chink. Eddie die in DMZ. Look, Eddie would want you to have this." He held out his right hand to Soon-bok. Military script: three tens and a five. And a gold ring with a blue stone, Eddie's class ring from high school. Soon-bok took the four pieces of script, the ring, and cried.

Two weeks later Crawford showed the squad a carbon copy of the incident report. We were in our barracks, the far quarter of a Quonset hut, cement floor, double bunks. The report was not accurate but Crawford said don't worry about it, that's the Army. That day the demilitarized zone –  the four kilometers of no-man's land dividing the Koreas – was in late summer splendor, leaves thick, streams clear, sky blue, air savory, small deer and wild pigs skittery in the bush. No humans on our side but for foot patrols: olive fatigues, soft field hats, rifles, grenades. About forty meters south of the military demarcation line – the middle of the DMZ, the actual border between North and South Korea – our patrol had stopped. On the other side were six North Korean commandos in polished green, sneakers, submachines, mean mothers. Nothing separated us, the MDL being but a worn path.

The first lieutenant headed the patrol. Crawford was senior sergeant. One officer and twenty men. Crawford offered an opinion: why risk an incident? The lieutenant said because our mission was to assert our jurisdiction. Crawford offered a tactical suggestion: two teams, one goes up, one covers.

The lieutenant took the first team, which included Eddie and me, for a walk on the MDL, asserting our jurisdiction. What I remember next was him yelling, hit it. The incident report said the North Koreans shot first. I'm not sure. I did what the lieutenant said hugging the ground a meter south of the MDL. I looked up and Eddie was standing then fell backwards. The incident report said Eddie was returning fire but I don't think so, he just froze in place as the rest of us hit it. I lay there listening to the rattle of the submachine guns and the cracking of the covering team's return fire. Crawford paced behind the covering team – everyone else was on the ground – yelling aim those rifles, single shot, aim goddammit. Their scattered automatic bursts settled into rhythmic semi-automatic fire.

"Withdraw." My team reacted instantly to the lieutenant's order crawling and crouch running. "Not you." The lieutenant stopped me in mid-flight. "Hansson. Help me with Hansson." That was Eddie's last name. Later guys asked me if his eyes were open but I don't remember. I do remember two small holes in his flack vest – why do we wear those things if they don't stop a bullet? – with hints of blood.

We laughed at the estimate of hostile casualties. The incident report said we killed three and wounded two, absurd. Crawford, who had the best view, said maybe they took two hits as they withdrew in good order.

A few days later we were called to the command post, the lieutenant, Sergeant Crawford, me, at rigid attention, heels locked, hands at our sides, fingers curled, eyes and chins to the front, before the captain at his desk. The captain was pissed. The lieutenant had suggested we three be awarded bronze star medals, what was he thinking, why didn't he leave it alone?

"Is your name John Fucking Wayne?" the captain asked the lieutenant. "Answer me. Are you Lieutenant John Fucking Wayne?"

A petulant reply. "No sir."

His gaze moved to Crawford. "You, sergeant, are you John Fucking Wayne?"

Crawford answered with crisp immediacy. "No. Sir."

The captain's gaze moved to me. My hands trembled. I couldn't hold them still.

As we walked back to barracks, Crawford was in high humor. "That was easy. Just a good old ass chewing. 'Are you John Fucking Wayne?' The captain's funny."

I told Sergeant Crawford I was falling all over myself I was laughing so hard.

Crawford threw an arm over my shoulder, almost like Eddie used to. Loosen up, he urged.

Two days later the lieutenant came into our barracks to see Crawford. He called me over. He and Crawford sat on a bottom bunk. I sat on a foot locker. He offered cigarettes, Marlboro my favorite, and we lit up.

"It's been bad with the parents," the lieutenant said. "They keep writing to the captain asking what happened, how did he get killed, it's not Vietnam."

Short pause. "They're upset about his class ring. It wasn't with his effects. I thought we sent everything back."

Long pause. "Sir, you're not going to like this," said Crawford. "He lost it in a poker game. No idea where it is."

The lieutenant put his head in his hands. "Jesus Christ we can't tell them that."

"I agree," said Crawford.

The lieutenant looked up. "How are you guys doing?"

I don't remember answering. Maybe I nodded. Crawford said, "We're doing okay, sir. Thanks for asking."