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A 'police action' spawns case of G.I. blues

Published September 26, 2006

It wasn't a war. It was a "police action," they said. But Korea seemed like a war to me.

I was on hills that our military named Baldy and Pork Chop, and in the Bowling Alley, for much of 1953. And, like the kids today who choose to serve, I had enlisted. Regular Army.

I was very tall when I was young - and very skinny. I was 6 feet 4 and weighed . . . well, I won't tell you what I weighed, but it made me slim at that height. And the minute my superiors in the Army saw me, I was the BAR man. That stood for Browning Automatic Rifle, a long machine-gun rifle with a tripod that required I wear a vest and carry 13 packs of heavy ammunition.

Put a steel pot on my head and face me toward the front. I was not really a soldier, but I played the part of one.

At that time, somebody in a position of power in Washington came up with an idea. Dangerous. They decided that every solider should have three pals. It was dubbed the Buddy Groups. So, everyone had to choose three others and become instant friends in a time of war.

But I was an only child, and therefore shy. Furthermore, I had gone off to basic training alone. I didn't know anybody.

Consequently, I let a kid from England, who in civilian life was a skater in the Holiday On Ice shows on our side of the Atlantic, choose me as his buddy. He didn't know anyone either.

Then we needed two more. Finally, two boys from the South - who were friends - were attached to us to make a foursome. Buddies forever.

On the front lines in Korea, in the mud, in the snow, in the dust and the drought, I stumbled through the days.

The nights were not much better. One night we were setting up a listening post in the mud. I struggled to get the BAR into position and rammed the barrel into a bog, filling it with mud and rendering it useless. Thinking quickly, I put my index finger into the barrel to dislodge the goop, and instead lodged my finger there.

The Presidential Citation was not on its way to me.

On another lonely winter night, we launched a patrol through rocky streams of icy water. We were in a single line and each soldier in front of me stepped easily on the rocks. Like ballet dancers, each skipped along the water to the other side. I tried to skip but fell full-length into the water, holding the BAR directly under the freezing stream.

The platoon leader made me go back to my bunker alone because I was so useless.

An Army axiom is: "Never volunteer." Well, I followed that advice, to a point:

As a teenager I had wanted to be a writer, so in high school I had taken typing. And I wrote for the hometown newspaper before I graduated; I even had my own column. So, early on in 1953 Korea, when an officer asked, "Can anyone in this group type?" I raised my hand. I volunteered.

"You're the new company clerk!' the officer announced.

Maybe now that citation would come? But no - the Pentagon insisted I was part of a Buddy Group, and the four of us had to do the same job. We all had to be company clerks, or we all had to peel potatoes. We all had to be Buddies.

But only one of us could type.

A few weeks later, another officer addressed us. "Can anybody in this group type?" he asked.

This time I did not volunteer, but one of my buddies volunteered me: "Aylward can type!"

"Good, you're the new supply clerk!" said this officer.

But when the other officers checked a little later, the Pentagon answered, "No. You did not need four supply clerks."

Actually I wanted to be a clerk, because I would be in the reserve area, not on the front, which I figured might help me live longer. My Aunt Bertha suggested I write to our congresswoman, Edith Nourse Rodgers, to tell her what was going on. Maybe she could help untie this bureaucratic knot.

I refused to write to Rep. Rodgers, because I knew the Army checked outgoing mail and somebody would know I was trying to wangle a better assignment. So I soldiered on.

But after the icy-stream incident, sitting by myself back in the bunker, I thought maybe Aunt Bertha was right, and maybe Washington was wrong. Maybe I really should do something about it before I became a statistic.

I wrote an agonizing letter to Rep. Rodgers, and somehow the letter got out without being checked.

Early one cold morning, the company clerk came to the bunker and told me that a certain Capt. Forrester wanted to see me - right away.

"What have I done?" I asked the clerk.

"You wrote to your congresswoman," came the answer.

I had never seen the captain up close. He didn't look like a happy man to me, especially when he said:

"You wrote to your congresswoman?"

I nodded.

He said, "Why didn't you come to me?"

"Because it's happened over and over," I answered, "and only Washington can do anything about it. I'm part of this Buddy Group, and they won't give me the job even when I'm the only one qualified."

The captain then told me that Rep. Rodgers had called Gen. Mark Clark, head of the Far East Command in Tokyo, and demanded he do something.

Clark had then telephoned Capt. Forrester, and here I was, on the hot seat. The captain asked me if he gave me the job I wanted, would I be happy staying there in Easy Co., Second Division.

I said, "Very happy."

"All right," the captain said, "you're the new supply clerk. Report to Sgt. Diaz."

I said, "Thank you, sir!" and started to leave.

When I got to the flap of his tent, the captain added, "Oh, Aylward, don't think for one minute I gave you this job because you wrote to your congresswoman."

"Of course not, sir!"

No. They didn't call it a war, but it sure seemed like a war to me.

New Port Richey resident Jim Aylward was formerly a syndicated columnist and radio host in New York City. Write to him in care of Seniority, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

[Last modified September 26, 2006, 09:30:56]

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