Nor had he been shot at in anger (is there any other way?) for five years. Be fair about it: everything was a trade-off. Yet you never forgot the sound, the whine of the ricochet, the delayed, distant crack of a weapon, the sound that reaches you after the bullet is past, the extremely odd realization that someone you don’t know and have never met just attempted to end your life, and the blissful knowledge that you have, literally, dodged the bullet.
Now, in late November of 1950, he again was exchanging shots. There were ranging shots first, from the 61mm mortars and overhead fire by machine guns, long-range and ineffective. Then there were rifle shots, scattered and then steadier, more intense. The sound came mostly from the east, from the shores of the big lake. Was that it? Were the Chinese coming across the lake? Trouble was, it was snowing, hard, dry, wind-driven snow, cutting visibility almost to nothing.
In the year 2017, memories of the Korean War, often forgotten before this point, are coming back with a roaring vengeance. The situation is perilous. We have, they say, a madman (I actually don’t think he is) with nuclear weapons at his fingertips. Missile tests continue at a rate that seems higher than before (at least, because we’re paying more attention), and the Chinese, despite much-ballyhooed hopes of change, still stand by their troublesome little buffer state. To China, North Korea is like a pet dog that bites anybody randomly. You might get bitten, but if you can keep it on a leash it’s a useful defense against interlopers.
Coincidentally, when I was going through some old things a few weeks ago, I came across a book I remembered reading in 11th grade. The pages were a bit ripply, but it was still in pretty good shape. That book was The Marines of Autumn, by James Brady (not to be confused with the deceased former Press Secretary), who actually served as a U.S. Marine in the Korean War. The story centers on the most famous operation of the Korean War, the Chosin Reservoir campaign and the miraculous retreat to the sea.
The Marines of Autumn starts in early October, 1950. It’s still fairly warm in Georgetown, Washington D.C., where Thomas Verity teaches at the university, but what he teaches is about to put him in a world of hurt. He’s a professor of Chinese, as he spent his childhood in that country, the son of a businessman that made a fortune there. After serving as a Marine officer in World War II, by the beginning of The Marines of Autumn, Verity is a father to a not quite yet three-year-old daughter, with her mother dying while giving birth to a second child who also died.
While Verity faces this personal tragedy at the start of 1950, the world would face another, much bigger one. North Korea, seeking to reunify the peninsula, stormed past the 38th parallel into South Korea and another war began.
While World War II veterans, especially ones like Verity with experience in combat and leading a rifle platoon, were called back to the colors in droves, because of his situation – his small daughter without her mother – he filed for a compassionate exemption and it was granted.
But…only for a little while.
During that time, the Korean War turned from desperation at Pusan, the last bastion preventing the North Koreans from overrunning the entire peninsula, to triumph at Inchon, where the North Korean forces were outflanked and smashed in Seoul, throwing them into headlong retreat. That first year of the Korean War was almost like the Iliad come to life – the Trojans penetrating the Greek defenses, forcing them to make a desperate stand at the ships, Patroclus throwing the assault back in confusion – until Hector killed him.
And so The Marines of Autumn takes us into that third phase. With General MacArthur rampaging through North Korea, the war seems won. But there is chatter in some circles – circles MacArthur does not take seriously, that China, now under communist rule, wouldn’t allow its fellow communist ally North Korea to be overrun. That would essentially mean an American vassal state and American troops on its border. It’s a strong incentive for military intervention, and while MacArthur doesn’t take it seriously, people in Washington do.
It’s here where Thomas Verity is called in. The Marine Corps wants to send him over to Korea to monitor Chinese radio traffic and figure out if they’ll be moving in or not. Despite his protestations that his daughter depends on him, they are all ignored. So off he goes, screwed, to the Korean Peninsula, where it would soon get cold…very cold.
The Arctic Autumn
General MacArthur made some bad mistakes as 1950 wound down. One gets the impression that James Brady was attacking him viciously from a personal place in The Marines of Autumn. He narrated MacArthur’s mistakes: separating his forces over mountains where they would be unable to support each other, the sprint to the border despite the worsening weather, the complete negligence in reckoning with the Chinese threat, in the most biting fashion.
While James Brady wasn’t a veteran of the 1950 campaign, he served with Chosin Reservoir veterans , and he dedicated The Marines of Autumn to them. MacArthur’s mistakes hurt his friends, and this isn’t something he so easily forgives. This is the kind of thing that makes The Marines of Autumn far more real and often the lines between a work of fiction and an actual memoir of the Korean War are blurred.
This is especially so with the experiences of Thomas Verity and the other men retreating southward from the Chosin Reservoir back to the sea. The Chinese did come. Though their casualties were horrendous, through their sheer weight of numbers and the horrible weather, they forced the isolated American columns to retreat. The army in the west completely collapsed, and the Chosin Reservoir was a near-run thing. If the Chinese had air power and artillery beyond mortars, the Americans would have met a horrible fate indeed. The Marines of Autumn gives us a taste of their miserable retreat, fighting for their lives in the snow, everyday chores made a Herculean labor by the subzero temperatures even before winter officially began:
Verity’s anus bled intermittently, rubbed raw from cold toilet paper and diarrhea. Tate, Verity knew from how he walked, was the same.
Some men just shit in their trousers as they marched. Verity resisted for days before joining them.
It only stinks for a while, he realized. Then it froze. But before it froze there were a few moments when it was pleasantly moist and warming, like a soothing poultice. But only for a time. Then it solidified into a lump of frozen shit down around the bottom of your trousers where they tucked into boot tops or canvas leggings.
Whet the hell, Verity thought.
He wasn’t the only man too weak and too cold or whose hands were too frozen to go through the whole damned rigamarole of dropping gun belts and packs and opening parkas to get at the several pairs of pants everyone wore and the two sets of yellowed, odorous underpants inside, to open themselves bare to wind and snow.
So they shambled along, a stinking, rotten, tired column of freezing men who, for no rational reason, continued to behave not as a mob but as an army, still dangerous, still capable of fighting back and killing its enemies, not just in defense, but in attack and pursuit, running the Chinese to death in the low hills bordering the terrible road south toward the sea.
Those are the kinds of passages that separate The Marines of Autumn from many other war stories. On the cover, the book is compared to Homer, with Kurt Vonnegut saying “the Korean War now has its own Iliad.” While Homer’s language was far more powerful than the language Brady used, the Iliad does miss something The Marines of Autumn emphasizes. The former focuses on heroic action and the gamut of feelings that come from fighting, while the latter is perhaps more modern, focusing on the everyday miseries of simply trying to live as a combatant in a war zone, much less one with the terrible North Korean meteorological conditions.
It’s also a reminder that we should try with all our might not to repeat the experience.
But sometimes, no matter how hard people try for the best, history and “the strong force of fate,” as Homer would say, has a way of making them suffer. It’s a major theme of the Iliad, The Marines of Autumn, and my upcoming epic, The Red War.
And the ending of The Marines of Autumn is particularly steeped in that tragedian experience.