As we head into the Christmas season, I am reminded of an event that occurred in December of 1952, one of the “buried” stories that the old memory seems to be churning up recently (is the old bod telling me something?). It confirmed for me, in spite of any secular leanings I might have, that we were and are essentially a nation of religious conviction.
We had been on the line a few months at a place called the Punchbowl, a crater in the northeast mountains of Korea several miles wide and long with the North Korean and Chinese forces on the north end, and the so-called UN forces (us) on the south perimeter. Constantly under artillery shelling day after day, month after month, with sporadic attacks by Chinese and North Korean troops trying to gain new territory prior to an armistice, our unit had a significant number of casualties. I lost my radioman. Imagine the relief we felt when word came that our regiment was going to be relieved a few days before Christmas.
The day arrived, and having indoctrinated our replacements, we gathered our weapons and meager possessions and joyfully left that position. At a gathering point well behind the lines, we were placed on trucks and driven for an hour or so to what appeared to be a city of tents. As far as the eye could see, khaki colored canvas neatly lined well-policed, dirt streets.
We were assigned to a tent and wearily spread ourselves out on the first available bunk. What luxury that was. To top it off, we were issued clean fatigues, directed to hot showers (my first in two months), and served what seemed to me then one of the finest meals I have ever had: hot (and I emphasize that word for I had not had a cooked meal for some time), breaded, fried Spam with baked beans, corn bread and real, steaming coffee. This was the Ritz; this was Heaven.
Left alone that first day with no duty assignments, I wandered through the maze of tent streets, noisily crowded with celebrating soldiers. Strangers greeted and hugged each other as if they were family. Reflected in the boisterous laughter and bantering, there was an air of joy and humor and thankfulness for just being alive and there. As I leisurely walked, I thought I heard music and songs being sung, and soon became aware that I was hearing group harmony from all directions.
Numerous, small groups of men from every unit with common hymnal experience joined in gleeful harmony, singing their favorite hymns and carols. I heard tuneful, Christian melodies that I had not heard before. They sang as if they had been singing together for years. I actually heard a group asking each other if they knew that carol or that hymn, and within 10 minutes they were blending in beautiful harmony.
Every group sang with an almost zealous fervor. The glowing eyes of each expressed sheer happiness and comfort and inner peace as they sang their old favorites. Others played guitars and banjos with surprising skill, and there was one particular private who played a harmonica as well, I thought, as the renowned Larry Adler. There were other songs being sung, of course, but they were old country tunes that did not seem to produce the same passion, though I do remember something called “My Buckets Got a Hole in It”.
I have to confess that probably intensifying my sensitivity and emotion were several jolts of a fifth of Johnny Walker Black that I had swapped for three packs of Camels. Feeling pretty good, anything that anybody played probably would have been appreciated. That said, however, what I remember most is the intense passion of each of those singers. All seemed to express a profound and moving love and devotion to their God and to each other that I will remember forever.
Arnold Silverman, commander of the Laguna Beach VFW Post 5868, served in the Korean War as forward observer for a mortar platoon in Northeastern Korea, just above the DMZ line. Returning home from the war, he never spoke about his experiences until he began to set them down in short stories.