My Last Night on the DMZ…
Standing by my bunk in our base just south of the Imjin River, my buddy Tony Rangel told me I was going home tomorrow afternoon.
“Are you kidding?” I exclaimed.
“No, late tomorrow afternoon, said Tony, we will be heading down to Camp Hovey to turn in our gear, and then take our stuff down to Kimpo, where we will spend one night before getting on the plane and heading home. It’s called ‘Operation Santa Claus,’ Since we arrived in Korea on Christmas Eve in 1966, the Army doesn’t want us to spend a second Christmas over here.”
“Wow, a month early, I shouted, I cannot believe it!”
“Just then Lt. Winston came into our hooch, and stood in front of me. Specialist Rangel, I need to talk with Specialist Perkins alone.”
Quickly and quietly, my best friend from Basic Training, AIT, and in the Weapons Platoon of Company B, 3rd Battalion, 32nd Infantry, 7th Division; disappeared. I quickly wondered if I would ever see my friend Tony Rangel, ever again.
Now only me and 2nd Lt. Winston are here.
“I need your help, Perkins, Lt. Winston began, the other two forward observers are on duty, Jim Todd is out at your light jeep position and John Rape and Garcia, the fire direction center, are both stationed on the Observation Point North of the fence line. There has been activity there and I feel better having two guys who can handle the radio when gunfire breaks out.
“That leaves you, Perkins, as the only guy that can handle a radio, and I have a special mission tonight. We have reports from the OP that a North Korean tank is spotted just about 50 meters from the MDL. (the official demarcation line separating North and South Korea. No crew weapons like tanks and artillery are allowed in the area)
My mission tonight, is to sneak up to the tank and get pictures we can send to United Nations command. I have a camera that can will take pictures in pitch black conditions just like we will have tonight with the thick snow clouds.
“I am not ordering you, Perkins, as I can operate the radio myself, but Sgt. McGovern before he left, said that he could always count on you. I will need to focus on the camera and take those pictures.”
“Yes, Sir, I will do it.” (at the same time I am doing this, I am reminded what my friends and my Dad always said about volunteering for stuff in the Army. Never volunteer)
About an hour later our 5 man patrol assembled and first went to the rifle range to test fire our guns before heading to the DMZ across Libby Bridge, and then finally taken out to a gate along the fence line that was visible to the Observation Point where about twenty soldiers would be stationed each night.
On a typical ambush patrol we used only 5 men. We would set up in the thick brush or wooded area along a trail, and set up claymore mines, to seal off each end of our 5 man line. The claymores set up above ground and contained C4 explosive material along with hundreds of BBs inside. We would cover them with leaves to render them invisible to any North Korean infiltrator or soldiers that may heading to South Korea. Even though we carried the equipment, we will not set up the ambush until well after dark, because we need the cover of darkness to sneak up to the tank.
Darkness arrives early in December as most of the DMZ lies above the 38th Parallel. Think of Chicago, Detroit and Minneapolis as they do as well and you will understand what it was like living and working on the Korean DMZ.
Shortly after entering through the gate and out into no-man’s land, our five man patrol reached a heavily wooded area. Alongside the path we spotted an old “Bouncing Betty,” land mine exposed about five inches above the dirt, next to a dead tree branch. The land mine must have been there since the early 1950s during the Korean War. Many years later, I wonder if it can still explode.
Lt. Winston consulted his map, stopped our squad and ordered; “Let’s set up an ambush along this path. Let’s stay about 6 feet apart.” One guy set up both claymore mines, on each end of the path and the rest of us tried to get comfortable in the bushes.
This was good timing as the sun had just set but there was no twilight period. We observed complete darkness as soon as we sat in our ambush, bushes waiting for North Koreans to enter our ambush.
Two guys sat to the left of Lt. Winston, I sat next to the officer, only about three feet away because I carried the PRC-10 radio, which was the only way we could communicate with friendly forces. Now, even though I sat just three feet away from Lt. Winston, I could not see him. It was just too dark.
We were instructed not to talk but out of the dark, scary silence, I heard, one of the guys say, “Sir, I need to take a leak. Can I go?
There was silence for a few seconds as I could just feel tension in the officers as his voice said, “yes go ahead, but don’t stray too far from us. It is just too dark.”
The all too familiar sound of a soldier relieving himself on dead winter leaves just a few feet away broke the silence. Along with the noise which sounded deafening in this situation where we were setting up a quiet ambush, the strong aroma of fresh urine, flooded our olfactory senses.
Now I could sense Lt. Winston’s tension just elevated to a new level. “We are going to move to an area about fifty meters away and set up our ambush all over again.
It was much more difficult we found because we were bumping into each other, and tripping over rocks as the darkness created a new hazard we didn’t anticipate when moving into the current position while it was still light.
By now it had to be about 7PM, or 1900 hours in military time. It was pitch black. I had my M2 compass so I knew we were still facing North. My compass could see in the dark even though I couldn’t.
The Puppet Show…
Finally we were set up with claymores alongside what might be the same pathway, or at least and easier area to walk through in the darkness. We sat for what it seems to be an hour, and all of a sudden I hear a man snoring loudly. It was one of our men sitting about six feet to my right. I will call him “Wilson,” although this was not his real name.
Lt. Winston, sounded upset. “Who is snoring? Who is making all of the noise?”
“I think it is Wilson, Sir.” I whispered loudly.
Wilson, who else could it be. Maybe some North Korean infiltrators snuck in our ambush and decided to sleep with us.Is that it, Perkins?”
“No it is Wilson, Sir.”
Everyone get up from your positions, I have something for you. Stand on the path so I can find you.” We complied with Winston’s command.
The officer pulled out a spool of kite string. “Are we going to fly your camera over North Korea, I asked?”
Hearing something about me being a “wise guy,” and something about a “Mother.” Winston said nothing more but I could see he was cutting long sections of string from the spool.
Winston then, tied a string to my left wrist as I would be sitting next to him on his right side, and then to “Rip Van Wilson “who was sitting to my right, not far from the first claymore mine facing South.
Two men are sitting six feet apart from each other, to Winston’s left as he attaches strings to each of their right wrists. This way, Winston, would control us as marionettes on a string. All of us are attached to Lt. Winston’s spool. He is our puppet master.
What About the Tank?…
Assuming quiet positions in the dark bushy area along the path, I began to think about leaving the DMZ and heading for the United States for the first time in a year. “I can’t believe I will make it home after being here so long in Korea. Of course, I have to make it through the night with my ambush and reconnaissance patrol. At the rate things are going tonight, I don’t think we will find the MDL now some two hundred meters to our North, but in total darkness. A scary uneasiness enveloped me.
The five of us sat in our cold silence, wondering what would happen next. Then I heard the heavy breathing and finally snoring coming from Wilson to my right and possibly one of the guys sitting on the far left of the ambush patrol. I felt Lt. Winston tug on the string and then I saw I Wilsonless string flying in front of my face and boomerang back to our commander.
Winston then took his spool and pulled Smith’s string. He was sitting on the far left, close to the claymore mine facing West. Like Wilson, Smith, took off his wrist connection and the loop ended in Winston’s. Lap. “That’s it, let’s start a fire.”
There in plain sight of a North Korean Army and our men stationed up in the observation point Eastward from our position up on a hill, we started a bonfire with all of the dead leaves and trees our winter forest would allow.
In the darkness offered by North Korea, one can see a person puff on a cigarette from over a mile away. Imagine how easy it is to spot a bonfire on a dark cold night, from just about two football fields away. Lt. Winston admitted he was freezing to death and he was scrapping any chance of completing our mission in taking pictures of the North Korean tank a short distance away. I was disappointed but I was also frozen to the core, so I used all the energy I could muster to gather up anything I could find that would burn.
Rape, I cried!…
We tried and tried, but could not keep the fire burning. We had to keep moving around because it was so cold outside. It was late December of 1967, the clouds laden with snow and without the small fire we were totally blind.
It didn’t matter, Lt Winston ordered the fire put out. He said “lets hike up the hill to the observation point. “ Easier said than done , as this meant walking in the dark through a minefield and then negotiating barb wire, concertina wire, and a whole host of trip wires setting off flares, noisy tin cans, and God knows what else. Not to mention that all of our men stationed on the OP have their orders to shoot and throw hand grenades at anything that moves in the night. We were supposed to stay put and not move a muscle until daylight. Now we are in a position to be shot by our own men up on the hill!
The thought finally occurred to me that this may just well be my last night in Korea as well as my last night on Earth.
“Perkins, get the OP on the radio.”
“What is the password for today, Sir?’
I think it is ‘OD Green,’ Perkins.”
I set my radio to Channel three, and said ‘OD Green.’ “The password is OD Green”
I then heard a familiar Texas accent come back to me on my trusty eleven pound PRC 10 radio.
“That was the password last night. What is tonight’s password? We are ready to shoot you!”
“Rape, I cried. Rape, I yelled loudly into my radio hand set, it’s me, Perkins. Remember when you taught me how to set those ant hills on fire at the mortar range at Camp Kaiser. You said it was the way you set them ant hills on fire back home in Texas!
John Rape from Texas, along with Jim Todd, the other of us three amigos who were the Forward Observers for Company B of the 3rd Battalion of the 32nd Infantry, recognized my voice as well as my story and talked us through all of the seen and unseen hazards of getting up to the observation point in one piece.
We slept up on the point and in the morning, I took pictures of the observation point along with a picture of a claymore mine they had set up and pointed in the direction of our patrol stumbling through the darkness the night before.
It was very cold in the morning and snow began. By the time two inches were on the ground a deuce and a half truck driven by Guidry from Georgia, who also belonged to our platoon, drove us back to our permanent base at Camp Hovey, about eleven miles South of the Korean DMZ.
After turning in my gear, another truck took me to Kimpo Airport near Seoul, and I arrived home the next day.
It is going on forty nine years since my last night on the Korean DMZ. What a privilege it was to serve with Rape, Todd, Rangel, Winston, Smith, and even Rip Van Wilson.
Right now I look out the window and see total darkness outside my forest cabin up in Northern Arizona.
Now that I think of it again. It really wasn’t my last night on the Korean DMZ,