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Story ID:1391
Written by:Frederick William Wickert (bio, link, contact, other stories)
Story type:Period Piece
Location:Taejon S. Korea
Person:Homeless Old Woman
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By Fred Wickert

“Here are your orders. You will have three men. You will take carbines and five cases of “C” rations. When you arrive at your destination, get back the best way you can, when you can.”

“Okay Sergeant. When do we shove off?”

“In one hour.”

One hour later, we loaded into a weapons carrier with our gear. Each man had on long underwear, wore a light jacket purchased from the Koreans with cigarettes because they were warmer than our field jackets. Each man carried a parka with him and each man had an M-1 carbine with ninety rounds of ammunition.

It was early December in 1954 at K-9 Air Base in Korea. We were driven to the harbor in Pusan and taken to two railroad cars. They were flat cars with some kind of machinery on them in large wooden crates. They had been unloaded from ships, placed on flat cars and tied down with steel cables. These two flat cars were to be our homes for the next few days.

The Army Military Police were generally responsible for railroad security. In this case, whatever the machinery in those crates, they were believed to be highly valuable to the Koreans and they belonged to the Air Force. The Air Force decided they needed some extra security.

After the first night in the cold on the flat cars, I suggested that two of the men go to one of the ships tied up at the dock and see if they could use the toilet facilities, and if they would help us heat our frozen “C” rations so we could eat them. The rations were frozen and there was no way we could build a campfire on the docks.

In an hour or so, the first two men returned and told us the crew of the ship were very nice. Not only were they permitted to use the toilet facilities; they were also treated to a very good hot meal. The first two men took over the guarding of the train cars and the other man and myself went to receive the hospitality of the ship crew. They were a merchant ship and were engaged in transporting munitions and supplies from Japan to Korea, and they were delighted to give us some hospitality. The breakfast I ate aboard that ship that morning is one of the finest meals I have ever eaten.

When we returned to the train cars, railroad men had begun adding other cars to ours. A train was being assembled to move on out of the harbor. Before nightfall, we were on our way north. We didn’t go far before we found ourselves in a huge switching yard. As we sat there, cars were switched around from one place to another, and finally, just before dark, we were split up. One car was going to a destination closer than the other. Two of the men went with that car which was put in to another train. The third man and myself remained with the first car. Our destination was Kunsan. I do not recall the destination of the other car.

The train departed the switchyard and proceeded north. Steel cables were stretched over the crates and attached to the sides of the flat car. We stretched a shelter half over the cables and tied it. There was just enough room for one man to crawl inside the shelter half out of the wind and get some sleep if he could. I had the other man take the first turn under the shelter half. I was to wake him in four hours.

We were right behind the coal car that was hooked to the locomotive. The engine used steam and the coal was fuel for it. The cold was bitter and being in the open on a flat car, the wind increased the cold considerably. To get as much protection from the wind as I could, I moved to the front of the car, squatted behind the crates and hung on to the steel cables holding the crates. I had the carbine slung over my shoulder.

As I rode in this fashion, the sling on the carbine suddenly came loose from the top swivel. I watched in horror as the carbine fell, bounced off the track and was gone. Franticly, I grabbed for the other mans carbine and tried to fire three shots in the air. I was in hopes it might get the attention of the engineer and that he might stop the train so I could recover the carbine.

There was no such luck. The carbine I took from the other man refused to fire. The bullets just refused to go off. The train continued, and my carbine was lost. In the morning, we pulled in to the train yards in Taegu.

The man with me said he needed to have a bowel movement and asked to be allowed to go into the station. Not knowing how long the train was going to remain there, I told him to proceed. I instructed him that while he was there he should contact the Army military police responsible for railroad security, tell them where the carbine was lost and ask them to conduct a search for it. I told the man also to call if possible, our base and inform our people of the loss of the carbine.

When the man returned, he reported he had done all that I asked. I was then going to go and was told there wasn’t time because our train was leaving shortly. The train then proceeded north until it finally arrived in the train yards of Taejon at around 10:00 P.M. The Army military police informed us the train was secure while in the yard and we could come stay in the MP office and keep warm, and heat our rations. We could go out and check the train every hour during the night.

Around midnight, I went out with one of the Army MP’s and checked the entire train. We boarded the caboose attached at the end of the train. The car was tilted to one side. There were no door or windows in the car and the car was empty – or should have been.

An elderly Korean woman was squatted on one side of the car. She had infiltrated the train yard. The woman, obviously homeless, chose the caboose for shelter for the night. She had a large empty burlap sack pulled over her head and shoulders. We spoke to her and she did not answer. The MP pulled at the burlap, trying to get a response. She violently yanked the burlap back over her head.

The MP said to leave her there. I could not believe they were going to leave her there like that. The MP told me there was nothing more that could be done. Just leave her there. If she lived through the night, she was bound to leave on her own in the morning.

Making another round with the same MP at around 2:00 A.M., we checked the caboose again.
The scene was one I will never forget as long as I live. The woman remained in the same squatting position we had left her in. This time there was a frozen stream from under her, that ran across the floor of the car. She had wet herself there in the same squatting position and had not moved. The MP spoke to her. She didn’t move. He reached out with his foot and gave her a little nudge. Her frozen body toppled over. She was dead.

The MP said to leave her there. We went back to the MP office and he reported it to a Korean police sergeant there. I asked if they weren’t going to do something about it and the MP replied that the Korean police were going to take care of it.

Later in the morning, all that remained was the frozen puddle and stream left by the dying woman. The body had been removed, I know not where. The MP told me that it was not unusual. He said they came on people like that all the time. They just informed the Korean police and they in turn removed the bodies.

I was appalled at the callousness of it all, and the inhumanity. Because of the war there were so many poor and homeless that this was commonplace? It happened so often that it was treated as routine? It was difficult for me to swallow.

Our train departed the next morning. I had checked on the M-1 and was told a search of the tracks was made and the weapon had not been found. We eventually reached Kunsan, tired, filthy and cold. The most difficult part of the trip was going through tunnels in the mountains. There was fear the guerillas might blow up the tunnel with the train inside of it, which was a tactic they sometimes used. The other problem was that while going through the tunnels, we were enveloped in the thick black smoke from the locomotive and could neither see nor breathe. It was a horrible experience.

We were able to get transportation back to Pusan on passenger trains in relative comfort. We were then picked up at the train station by vehicle and returned to the base.
After returning there was a full investigation on the loss of the carbine. A first Lieutenant was assigned to the case. It was determined the reason the carbine of the other man did not fire was because the cold had made the oil so stiff it did not allow the firing pin to strike with sufficient force to detonate the primers in the ammunition.

In the end I was held responsible for the full price of the carbine and had to reimburse the government for it. The grounds for the decision were that I did not take steps quickly enough to regain custody of the weapon. The comfort of the other man was not important enough and I should have made him stay with the train while I saw to the reporting of the loss to the Military police.

The inhumanity towards that poor Korean woman continues to haunt me to this day.