The day was Monday, January 4,1954 at 0600 when the troop ship departed from Fort Lewis, Washington headed for Korea. Although the armistice had been signed, there was no victory. South Korea had yet to sign the agreement. Things were still uneasy to say the least. Jack stood on the bridge of the ship and watched as the mist rolled in on Puget Sound and made land invisible. He could still hear the band playing The Star Spangled Banner. A tear came to his eye. He had never revered God, duty, honor and country more. There was also a feeling of anxiety as no one knew when they would return home. He proudly wore the insignia of The 25th Infantry Division on his sleeve, the Tropic Lightning. He had been assigned to the 65th Engineering Division. They were sent to Korea to help them regain their freedom by building roads and bridges. He had a lump in his throat and could taste his own bile when he swallowed. He was never so glad to be a Second Lieutenant as he was when he saw where the enlisted men slept in the bowels of the ship on bunks four high with very little ventilation. His quarters looked like a five-star hotel in comparison. He would’ve given any one of them his bunk in a minute. They were the core of the United States Navy & Army & Marine Corps and they deserved better quarters.
When they arrived in Korea, Jack thought he never been in such a stinking hell hole in his life. He tried to find some sane reason why his USA was in Korea. Eisenhower had been the first General to sign an armistice without winning a war. All he saw were stripped hills, mud holes, rice paddies and a few mine fields for good measure. Little children, old women and men were working in the stark of their homeland. There were no smiles, just darkness and pain with hollow eyes looking at the American soldiers, begging for help. More than once, he reflected, I’m glad to be an American. He could not imagine his grandparents or his siblings working that hard just to have something to eat. He handed out candy bars and k-rations to the kids every chance he had. He made a mental note to tell Annie to have her church send lots of candy bars for him to give to the kids.
His job as a Second Lieutenant was to be in charge of a company of enlisted men and build a road through this desolated mud filled valley where rice paddies had once been. He had never built a road and now was in charge of doing it. He had one of his engineering text books with him (Colonel LeTellier, his professor at the Citadel had suggested it), so he studied it at night by flashlight. He wondered if old Colonel LeTellier had done the same in World War II. This was now his mission in life, to build the best road he possibly could and he was determined to do so.
He hadn’t counted on having a crew of men who had never done any construction in their short span on earth. The average age of his men was nineteen and at twenty-three, he felt like anciently man. It was going to take more than a prayer to get this job off the ground. It took several weeks to get his unit in line, but finally they got the hang of it. In his platoon, there was an older man in his early thirties named Durbin who was beyond fearless. He asked Durbin about his family once and he said, “Sir, I don’t have none. I spent two years in the pen for grand theft auto and they disowned me. The authorities let me out of prison and expunged my record if I would serve my time in Korea. Seemed like a better plan to me, so here I am. I promise I won’t give you no trouble. I sure don’t want to go back to the Big House for no reason.”
Jack took him at his word, in fact he really liked Durbin. He had the kind of persona that knew no fear and secretly, he wished he had that too, especially when it came to heights.
After a few months, his road was beginning to take shape. They were preparing to blast through the hills that day and he checked the coordinates with those who were in charge and found there would be no aircraft in the area during those hours. They sent their schedule to Captain Reynolds and it had been approved.
Captain Reynolds had been on the Regimental Staff when he was a knob at The Citadel. What luck, that he would run into him in Korea. He was the only upper classman he had ever disliked. Everything was in place to blast, when Durbin shouted, “Fire in the hole.” It sounded like bombs going off everywhere and the earth shook and sand covered the area. You could not see your hand in front of you. All of a sudden, they heard on the radio, “Lt. Knox, cease Operation Blast Off, now. I repeat, cease Operation Blast Off . NOW soldier.” The Colonel sounded pretty shook up and Jack wondered what in the world had gone wrong.
Durbin came running down the hill, “Sir, we just about blew General Coffey out of his helicopter. You are in deep shit, sir. Sorry, sir. Don’t know how you’re going to get out of this one. I swear we followed your orders right to the tee.”
“Don’t worry Durbin, if anyone takes the fall, it will be me.” He could not in his wildest imagination figure out how this had happened. “Damn, I hope I’m not going to spend the rest of my days in the Brig. No one was supposed to be in my air space. I triple checked it and triple checked it again.” Sweat poured down his brow and his heart began to race. He could feel it beating in his temples. What was he going to tell Annie? What was he going to tell his Dad? What was he going to tell the General if he is still alive?
Captain Reynolds came to the site and said, “Lt. Knox, you are leaving tonight for Seoul. General Coffey wants to have a word with you. It doesn’t look good for you.”
“What about you Captain Reynolds? Will you be escorting me? You checked the coordinates and said that there was no one in our air space. Three times as I recall.”
“Lt. Knox, you are mistaken. I never told you it was secure. You are no better now than when you were a cadet. I’m considering writing you up for insubordination. It’s no wonder you wound up a senior private at The Citadel.
I’m now past considering , I’m writing you up for insubordination”
“Well, it won’t be the first time, sir.” Jack knew he had been insubordinate, but Reynolds seemed to bring out the worst in him.
Captain Reynolds thought he was something special when he was on Regimental Staff at The Citadel. He gave out demerits left and right to knobs for no good reason. Many a good man had left the corps because of Reynolds.
His Mother sent him a trick gadget where you could pull a thread through your uniform jacket and if someone tried to remove the thread, it would unravel and look as if it was unraveling your underwear. His Knob year, he thread it through his grey wool uniform blouse right before inspection. He knew that Reynolds was the inspecting officer. True to form, Reynolds reached for the thread and made a few comments about his sloppy uniform, but the thread kept coming and coming and Reynolds was not sure to do. Finally, he stood there with a ball of thread in his hands, he muttered something and retreated but not before telling him, “Knox, you will pay for that.” Jack and his roommates could hardly keep a straight face during the thread pulling incident, but when he left the room, they burst out laughing. It spread through the entire corps faster than a jack rabbit. The Knobs were ecstatic. Reynolds was furious. It had been well worth being written up and walking a few tours around the quadrangle. Some of the knobs took turns walking with him to show support which infuriated Reynolds even more. (He thought his old buddy, T. Long had organized them.) So it didn’t surprise him that Reynolds wasn’t going to stand by him now. He had his chance for pay back and by golly, he was sure going to use it.
Jack thought, Durbin was there, he wouldn’t let me down. But who’s going to believe a private, especially one who is here to get out of serving time in the Big House. I think I’ve been screwed. I don’t recall they taught me anything about this kind of situation at The Citadel. Damn it all to hell.
He caught the next helicopter to Seoul not knowing whether he would be back or not. His enlisted men formed a double line and saluted him as he boarded the chopper. That was the only thing they could do to show him how much they respected and believed in him. As the chopper rose in the sky, he wondered what his fate would be.
The flight to Seoul seemed to take hours. He felt the chopper lower to the ground. The noise of the blades whirling overhead was deafening. He carefully jumped off and bent over so that his six-foot three frame would not meet the still turning blades. A jeep was there waiting to take him to General Coffey. He began to feel fearful of the outcome of this inquisition. Without Reynolds backing him up, what chance did he have? He began to sweat profusely and wished he had another uniform shirt to change into. His Dad had always said, Never let them see you sweat, and now he was sweating like a knob marching at a Friday afternoon review in the heat and humidity of Charleston, South Carolina.
He waited outside the conference room to meet with General Coffey and his staff. His hands were damp and he could feel his vomit rising in his throat. His Mother had always told him, “Jack, just tell the truth. It will always set you free.” He hoped her advice will be right on the money this time. He swallowed his own puke and sat up straight and tried to look like the officer that The Citadel had trained him to be. As for now, he could only wait, so wait he did. It seemed like an eternity before they called him in. Finally, the general’s aide came to get him.
“General Coffey, Second Lieutenant J. G. Knox reporting as requested, sir.”
“At ease, Lieutenant. I want to take a good look at the young man who tried to blow me out of the sky.” He then excused his staff from the room. “I heard you wear the ring, The Citadel ring that is.”
“Yes sir, Class of 53, sir.”
“Class of 39 here son. Are they still making knobs brace at meals?”
“Yes sir, they sure are sir.”
“Man, I hated that when I was there. I thought the first year would never end. Didn’t you play on the team that beat South Carolina? Man, that was the best game ever. I was lucky enough to be in the stands that day.”
“Yes sir, I did sir. The Dawgs had a great day. Something to tell my kids about.”
“You put a tackle on old Steve Wadiak that blew him out of the stadium. Mister Carolina All American Wadiak didn’t know what hit him.”
“Yes sir, it was me sir, I was the one who tackled him when he fumbled the ball. Just luck, sir, no skill.” Jack still wasn’t sure it actually was him who made the tackle, but now was not the time to bicker the point. He sensed he needed all the help he could get.
“Now you have another good story to tell at reunions, how you almost blew old General Coffey Class of ‘39 out of the sky.”
“Sorry sir, it was not intentional. We checked three times to make sure there was not any aircraft in the area. Someone sure did get their wires crossed.”
“Son, that someone was me. I told my aide not to bother to let anyone know I was coming. I was going for a surprise inspection of the troops. Now if I had let them know, it wouldn’t have been a surprise would it? It never occurred to me that the road you were building was so far advanced. Colonel Bulldog Billings must have taught you well. I guess I really surprised the troops didn’t I? It sure surprised me. There was no harm done so let’s just forget it. By the way, I am having Captain Reynolds transferred back to the states where he can’t do so much harm. He needs to learn to stand up for his men. I think he forgot his ring is only as good as mine or yours. Son, as long as you’re in Seoul, why don’t you go to the PX and get something for your best girl.”
“Roger that, sir. My best girl is my wife, sir.”
“Son, it has been a pleasure to meet you. When I see old Colonel Bulldog Billings, I’ll let him know what a fine engineer he trained. The next time I come for a surprise inspection, I’ll make sure the air space is cleared. Good luck to you, son. Always take pride. You wear the ring.”
“Yes sir, thank you sir.”
Jack saluted the General and walked out of the conference room.
He shook his head and thought, who would have ever thought that tackle I put on old Steve Wadiak would come in handy, and I’m still not sure it was me. Man, I can’t wait to tell Dad this story. He will never believe it. My brothers will swear that I made it up. Captain Reynolds is going to be mighty surprised when he finds out he’s going home early. Now that’s going to mess up his next promotion. Looks like he fell for the old thread trick once again.
Wonder how Durbin will like the sound of PFC. I just signed his promotion. Durbin is one of the most loyal men I’ve ever met.
*He and Durbin would meet up years later when Jack hired him as an iron worker on his bridge job in Kentucky. Jack never tired of watching him as he walked across the narrow steel beams as flawless as a gymnast. Durbin was true to his word, he had never been in trouble again after joining the Army. He remained the most fearless and loyal man Jack had ever met.
*Although this is a true story, I have changed some of the names to protect the innocent. He told it so many times, I expect it was embellished just as most war stories are.