Christmas in Korea
The Spirit of Tehachapi
December 9, 2023
I had been married to my Marine a whopping 17 months when he received orders in 1951 that he would be sent to Korea for a year. This was during the "Korean Conflict" which is what they called the war they had going over there. I found it difficult to imagine a whole year without him. My baby son, 8 months old, and myself had no choice but to come home to Tehachapi. Uncle Sam's allotment did not cover the expense of maintaining an apartment for the two of us. My parents were happy to have us. The years go by too quickly these days but then I was getting Lesson One in learning to adjust to being a military wife and how to learn to cope with the Corps demands. Sometimes though, one must think of those men who are being sent away for that year. It's a two way street. My husband, a World War II veteran, knew "the ropes" but the year was just as long where he was.
Anyway, I have a little story written by him about the "troops" and how they celebrated Christmas in 1951 in far off Korea.
Christmas in Korea
by Doyle D. Gracey, U.S.M.C. Ret.
In August of 1951 I was shipped from Camp Pendleton to Pohang, Korea. This would involve spending another Christmas thousands of miles away from home. It was good that we were busy for it helped pass the time away, except for Christmas time.
I have never been as cold in my life as when I was in China in 1945 and Korea in 1951. A frigid wind blew down from Manchuria with nothing to stop it. The words "nippy" and "brisk"simply do not describe it. The wind was icy and raw and went right through you.
They did have a PA system attached to a pole from which Christmas carols were played. Sometimes they'd slip in other songs and since they were not Christmas songs I seem to remember them most. Speaking of cold, the Hank Williams' tune, Cold, Cold Heart was one the non-Christmas tunes played.
It certainly served to remind us it was winter.
A Gunnery Sergeant we called Spike Nicholsen painstakingly painted boot laces red and decorated a small squatty, sparsely foliaged tree about four feet high. Actually, nothing growing in that area was higher than four feet tall including many of the people. He set it up in the middle of the compound and we all admired his work and his Christmas Spirit. He even put red ribbons on all of the stray dogs in the area.
For me, one bright spot in that Christmas was the fruit cake my wife had made and mailed to me. It was a big cake; about seven pounds and she had poured nearly a half pint of peach brandy to keep it moist for the journey. It was delicious. "Wild Bill Bailey," our First Sergeant, and a man given to drink, was also drawn to that cake, if not for the taste, by the smell of the brandy. There wasn't much booze there; in fact the boys had none most of the time. I never saw so many sober Marines together in one place before!
Our Mess Sergeant, Abe Collins, was a hell of a good cook and in the Corps a good chef is known far and wide. He did have a problem, however, of having a fondness for Scotch whiskey. Don't know where he got it; we certainly never saw any of it but he would show up drunk with regularity. Still and all his meals were great and we were looking forward to a gourmet delight for Christmas dinner.
Christ's birthday dawned and we were eagerly awaiting our meal. There were lots of turkeys but we soon discovered they were half raw. Collins and his helpers were snockered to the gills. We loaded up on the turkey and took it back to our tents to finish cooking it on the little pot-bellied heating stoves. Some used the tiny rations stoves. We had no candy, no apples or gifts but there was plenty of raw turkey. We valiantly tried to get it hot enough to get it done.
Talking about tents and cold: Our quarters were strong back four man tents which tied a wooden frame with a pyramidal tent over it. There was a stove in the center with a pipe going out the top. The stove was difficult to control and had two temperatures; cold and explode! Occasionally we'd set a tent on fire and would clear out in a hurry. In spite of our feeble attempts to stay warm, the Jerry cans of water in the tent would freeze.
That year I sent my wife a blue satin pant suit with a huge gold dragon embroidered on the back and smaller one on the front. A lot of pant suits were sent back to unsuspecting wives that year! She dutifully put on the suit and had a picture taken to send me. Then it was repacked in the little blue satin box where it remains to this day. She must be waiting for just the right occasion to wear it!
Our Chaplain, Father Sullivan, was a fearless man and well suited for his job. He was a real inspiration to the men and was there when needed. In war situations one soon finds that the worse it gets the more one needs whatever faith they have. I never met an atheist on the battle field.
Our House Boy was named Song Gung Ho. He was about 16 years old and was honest and trustworthy. Very bright. He learned to speak English and taught himself to read and write English. My wife still has the letter he wrote to her that year. I hope he was able to make a good life for himself.
If this story sounds a little bleak, it really isn't. The camaraderie among the men was good. There were a few knotheads, but for the most part we made lasting friendships that we continued to treasure. Maybe it was misery loves company but whatever it was it kept us going. There was laughter and "good will among men," for sure.
Song Gun Ho's letter to my wife:
Dear Sir: to my Ching Goo wife (Ching Goo means friend in Korean.), I am Korean boy. I have black 'aise' and black hair. My country is in war. We friend U.N. and U.S. America help Korea. We have triumph.
I work and go to school. We are now in war. I 'speaks' English little. Very sorry. Korea, poor country. America is my hope country. I go sometime, but I don't know. I go America sometime see you?
Goodbye. I write mail again. May you happy.
Song Gung Ho,16 year old Korean boy.