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Occasional coarse language, common usage at that time and place, is incidental to this Untold Tale from the Korean war.

But then ... we were never angels.

Golden Bond

Bert Kortegaard on mountain
Birchard Lee Kortegaard

"Til Death Do Us Part"

Youth consumed by war and pride
Children never young
Not wise not strong not right not wrong
Yet brave your song was sung

To The Confederate States of America, from a great grandson

"You murdered him! Shot him like he was a dog!

"You son of a bitch, you must be crazy!!"

The major's face was pale from shock and horror. Knuckles white from the strength of his grip on the .357 magnum.

Watching him ... waiting ...

I reckon if the fucker was going to shoot me, he'd a done it by now ...

I turned a little and spat in the dust.

"Yes, sir!

"But you can see the piece laying by the bastard, sir. "

The major didn't even glance at the Soviet automatic. Or the shattered head of the dead Korean in blood-spattered, baggy white civilian clothes.

Looking steadily at me, regaining self control by visible strength of will, "Sergeant, you may not be crazy. Or a son of a bitch.

But you are a murderer."


Moments before, as the major and his driver climbed back up the ditch bank towards his jeep, I'd pulled out my backup. A Tokarev T33 I'd taken from a dead NK at Yongpo.

Showing the Korean that it was at half-cock, I tossed it a foot away from him.

His eyes widened in surprise.

I clicked on the safety of my carbine, and pointed it at the sky.

His eyes narrowed, in understanding. He tensed, but quickly relaxed again.

His upper lip curled slightly, then the expressionless mask fell back into place. I lined my carbine on that upper lip and clicked the safety back off.

His mouth opened in sudden realization, just as I fired full automatic into it, blowing off the back of his head.

It was just bad luck that the major had looked back at us a second or two before I fired.

Now he was looking only at me, revulsion and contempt engraved deeply in his face.

"You're going to hang for murdering this civilian, you sick piece of crud."


The North Koreans were pros. A third of them fought in the Chinese civil war, and whipped the rest into fighting shape long before they crossed the 38th parallel. They wiped out 5 ROK divisions in as many weeks, and took out our 24th without a deep breath.

In the Pusan perimeter, only 70,000 NK assaulted over 90,000 US and ROK troops, in excellent defensive positions, and came within a hair of wiping us out. In spite of our overwhelming air superiority.

Near Masan, 7500 NK with 25 tanks attacked 20,000 US troops with 100 tanks, and almost broke through. To a cataclysmic bloodbath at Pusan.

In part, this early NK success was owing to our forces being garrison troops, unprepared for the savagery of combat.

In part, it was because the NK were the reverse. Prepared, veteran, resolute and ferocious.

If that kid was NK, he would have handled a rear echelon major like a panther would handle a pussy cat.

But, maybe he really was a civilian. Maybe sole support for a sick mother. And a dozen siblings.

I really didn't know. I never could know, for sure.

Slinging my carbine, I came slowly to attention.


"Sir! If you say so, sir.

"Only, he for sure didn't look like a civilian, to me. Fact is, I think he was NK.

"Sir, I couldn't chance a NK loose in a jeep with just the two of you.

"Anyways, your own driver can see he had a piece."

The driver was staring wide-eyed, half out of the ditch, completely confused. Unlike the major, he hadn't heard me throw the Tokarev to the Korean and then watched me shoot him. But he could see the weapon lying there now.

For all he knew, the Korean could have hidden it during the search. Maybe.

My point man, Jensen, silently rose from the hillside edge of the ditch. Looking bored.

"That's the way she went, sir, I seen it. The fucker pulled a hideout. Sarge only just beat me to it, shootin' that sonabitch.

"Prob'ly some of the other guys seen it, too."

The rest of my squad stood up, by ones and twos. Expressionless.

For minutes the major looked at us. His surprise at seeing them materialize out of empty ground gradually changing to a deep sadness.

Finally, without another word, he went back up to his jeep, his driver scrambling along behind.

Slowly, they drove away.


Moving out that morning, after over a month of steady combat, we'd hoped for an easy patrol.


Eleven days after the September 15th Inchon invasion, US forces punched through what was left of the North Korean lines around the Pusan perimeter. A single tank battalion broke out and moved 106 miles in eleven hours to link up with Seventh Division, securing X Corps' right flank near Seoul.

Bypassing most of the stunned, disorganized remnants of the North Korean army.

Of the 70,000 NK attacking the Pusan perimeter, only about 30,000 got back to North Korea. Almost all, over the eastern roads our generals neglected to block, but chased all the way by the ROKs.

The ROKs did most of the NK roundup, but our battalion did our own clean-ups. Ever since a mortar platoon of 5th Cav was captured, tied up, and murdered by NK. The platoon hadn't even put up a fight, because they thought the NK were ROK support troops.

My squad was making an off-road sweep north of the old perimeter, kicking out stragglers in our communications area. The ones we found had usually thrown away their weapons, or were easily disarmed. We just searched them, then walked them to a collection point, a jerry-rigged corral of barbed wire.

But some NK units fought determined guerilla actions.

We were always very, very careful.


Half into our patrol Jensen had been circling a little rise on the left, and when he dropped to one knee, we all did. He crawled further up to where he could look into the road-side ditch, his head masked under a clump of brush.

I crept up beside him and eased my head under the other side.

A jeep was stopped, half on the road. A major and a PFC were standing in the ditch about thirty feet away, next to a Korean in baggy white civilian clothes, lying on his stomach and elbows. They had our divisional patches, but had spotless starched uniforms and I didn't recognize either of them. I figured the officer had to be rear echelon.

He was vaguely covering the Korean with a hand gun, while the trooper was searching the man, tossing what he found on the ground.

An American watch. An American lighter. Some Korean looking piddly crap. Money, miscellaneous items ... could be from anywhere. A beat-up map the Major looked at, then dropped on the pile.

A coil of communications wire.

A gold wedding band.


Jensen lifted his eyebrows at me in a question. Motioning him and the squad to stay concealed, I stood and jumped down into the ditch, waving casually to the startled major.

"Thought I heard a motor up this way, sir. We're rounding up NKs back at Tabu-dong. Got one for us?"

The major explained that this man seemed to be a civilian. When the major's jeep sharply rounded the curve he'd startled the guy, causing him to fall awkwardly into the ditch. They stopped to check him out, and he apparently had hurt his back.

He looked healthy enough otherwise. Young, sturdy, tough faced. Hammered down and hard.

Why aint he in the ROKs? ...

Why didn't the NK draft him themselves, or shoot him ?

The major was having him searched, before bringing him to the hospital at the refugee camp in Taegu. They hadn't found any weapons on him, and every Korean had stuff like some of what he was carrying.

But not like all of it.

Strolling over, I picked up the lighter. Its enamelled logo was the 34th Infantry Regiment, 24th Division.

Showing the lighter to the Korean,

"Chonan? Kum?", where the 34th had been overrun. Some of them taken prisoner, and murdered. The man blinked, but his expression was a mask.

"Taejon?", where the 24th Division was about finished off. Where we had just found 7,000 murdered South Koreans. Plus more murdered GIs.

Another blink.

Know what I'm thinking about, don't you?

"Sir, if you drop him off at our collection point, the ROKs can find out how he got this stuff."

The major, skeptically,

"They can't give him much medical treatment there, Sergeant. Plus, he might need a lot more of it after the ROKs talk to him, from what I've heard."

The wedding ring had a nick and long, jagged scratch. I held it where the Korean could have seen the scratch, but he didn't look at it. He didn't blink.

You know that scratch is there. You know how it got there.

Picking up the coil of wire, I motioned him to put his hands behind his back. A blink, this time. He tensed, but didn't move.

You don't like getting your hands tied. Why? Are you just scared?

Maybe you seen some of our guys tied up? Seen the wire tear their wrists when they tried jerking loose, when the burp guns started in?

Leastways, thinking you couldn't take these guys if your hands was tied?

I lined my carbine on his nose. His eyes flicked towards the safety, then back to mine. Flat. Unblinking. Like the eyes of a snake.

You're thinking in gook, but you know I been reading your mind. I'm thinking English but you're reading where my mind is headed. You're deciding what to do.

My reactions were on full instantaneous. As his eyes had touched the safety, I'd flipped it off.

You ain't scared. I'm just a problem you got to solve.


"What the hell do you think you're doing?" the major barked at me.

He felt guilty about causing the poor guy to have an accident. For a fact, Korean civilians had enough problems without troopers making them leap into ditches. Or sticking rifles in their faces.

"Back away from that man." The major took a step towards me. Impatient, becoming angry. Outraged that I would terrorize the helpless man he'd unintentionally injured.

"Sorry sir."

Backing away, carbine steady on the man's nose.

"Just thought I better tie him up, if you're taking him with you. Just the two of you, it'd be safer."

The Korean's mask seemed to slip for a second. A flash of ... something.

Understanding? Hatred? Fear?

Pain from a hurt back?

The major studied me. Uncertain. Finally,

"I don't know how bad his back's hurt, but tieing his hands could make it a lot worse. And I'll be sitting right behind him with my .357."

Major, if that kid's NK, inside of two miles he'll have your .357 stuck up your ass.

"Yes, sir!"


I didn't know what to do.

Just little things, but the guy could easily be NK. Behind our lines, in civilian clothes.

North Korean troops had dressed like civilians before, and mixed in with groups of real civilian refugees. And then tossed grenades at unsuspecting troops at road blocks.

Still, there were a hell of a lot of genuine civilians, and we'd only found a few we really wondered about. The ROKs sorted them out for us.

The pathetic things he was carrying might have been found, or traded.

What bothered me, was the 24th Division logo. And the wire.

And especially the wedding ring.

I aint sure about this fucker. They should of sent a ROK with us.


The major turned away, beckoning his driver to follow,

"Give him back his stuff, Sergeant, and help him up to the jeep."

They started climbing out of the ditch.

"Yes, sir!"

Time had about run out.


I drew my Tokarev, showed the Korean it was at half cock ... if he's NK he knows it's loaded and ready ... I lobbed it carefully to where the Korean could grab it, safetied my carbine again and pointed it at the sky.

He tensed ...

There's your chance, fucker ...

... the major heard the automatic land!

It wasn't quite an even chance. With my squad concealed behind me, it was no chance at all, except maybe to take me down with him. But he didn't know about my squad. If he's NK, he's got to think he can pop the other two guys easy if he can put me down first.

At least he could die fighting. Hands free. Facing his enemy.

He didn't move.

If he's NK, what's he waiting for? ...

Maybe he isn't NK! Maybe he's just a scared shitless apple knocker! Trying to figure what dumb ass thing I'll do next?

Maybe he isn't NK ... Hiding behind the refugees' tragedy ... Faking an injury until he gets a chance to make his move.

Maybe he didn't tie prisoners' hands behind their backs with that wire ... Before they were lined up and sprayed with burp guns ... Like happened to hundreds of ROKs and GIs.

Maybe he didn't take that lighter from a tied-up 24th Division soldier ... Before he shot him through the head ... Like happened to dozens of them.

Maybe he didn't cut that ring off a tied-up soldier's finger ... Nicking and scratching it with his trench knife ... After cutting the soldier's throat.

The major had turned, was looking at us.

There was no real proof the Korean wasn't a civilian ...

But he's too young ... and too hard! ... the ROKs would have drafted him.

And he understood what I was asking, about the lighter. He knew what I was wondering, about the wire ... and he checked the safety on my carbine.

He knew all about that ring!

Maybe he figures making his move in the jeep's a better bet? ...

An NK in that jeep, with a couple of Headquarters guys ... !

Looking at that tough young face. Watching the upper lip curl in ... amused contempt? Helpless terror? Embarrassment? ...

No way I can be real sure.

The major started to shout something ...

Time's up!

I'm sure enough.

I lined my carbine back up and clicked off the safety ................................


As I walked over to recover my automatic, waving my squad on, Jensen drawled

"I reckon that major is pure disappointed in our character.

"Shucks. "

My dirty, dog-tired, battle-worn squad laughed.



Stowing my Tokarev, I looked down the road after the jeep.

Biggest trouble with this officer-enlisted crap, you can't never talk things out like men. We could of talked, I could of leastways got him to secure the fucker.

I kicked at the pitiful pile of things the Korean had carried ...

The major figures I wanted to kill the guy. Keerist! All the choice he left me, the major might as well of shot the fucker hisself!

My thoughts followed the jeep, estimating they'd have driven about a mile ...

If the guy was NK, about now he'd be pointing off somewheres with one hand and taking away the major's .357 with the other.

About now he'd of blowed the major's head off, and be making the driver stop.

About now he'd blow the driver's head off too, and take his grease gun, and make tracks.

I looked back at the body. ROK graves reg could clean this one up ...

Well, fucker, that's two of us you didn't get to murder, anyways.

Spotting the wedding ring, I picked it up.

Battalion Intelligence can probably get this back to the wife, from the inscription.


With the thought, my blood froze. My feet turned to ice, my face felt stiff and numb.

The inscription! I never had time to check it!

What if it's in gook?

Even in English I ain't real sure. It could mean almost anything if it's in gook !


Slowly, I stood up very straight. A little dizzy, the blood draining from my head.

Trying to bring my reactions back under control, I set my jaw ... of course it's in English ... it has to be in English.


Slowly, I climbed out of the ditch.

We could of talked, leastways we'd of worked out to check the inscription.


For a minute I just stood quietly. Not thinking of anything, but not having will or energy to move.

After a little longer, slowly, I put the ring in my pocket. Not looking at it.

Intel can read what the fucker says when I turn it in.


I spat back towards the ditch.

Slowly straightening up, I unslung my carbine, and slammed in a new magazine. Gradually building up to normal speed, I moved to catch up with my squad.


Time to get back to the war.


The CCF killed my point man, Cpl. Robert E. Lee Jensen, north of the Chongchon. I went down a few minutes later, but the Chinese took a few other men in my company prisoner and they carried me to a field hospital. Minus my left leg and part of my face. When those of us who survived the POW camps were released after the war, my wife reminded me she hadn't married me for my looks, and today we have five grandkids.

I never found out the background of the Korean, but if I had it to do over again I wouldn't shoot him. I would have my squad tie him hand and foot in the back of the jeep. We wouldn't disobey the major's orders, we just wouldn't hear them.

Still, I have no regrets. The inscription on the ring was two names bonded together by hearts. The names were in English.

Souvenirs ... First short story of Korean War series

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