Rediscovering Korea, four decades on 1980-2021: Part 1. Veteran recalls adventures of first tour in Korea

Photos by Charles T. Mitchell
Photos by Charles T. Mitchell

Rediscovering Korea, four decades on 1980-2021: Part 1. Veteran recalls adventures of first tour in Korea

by Charles T. Mitchell
Stripes Korea

Part 1: Veteran recalls adventures of first tour in Korea

Have you ever wondered about timelessness, that nostalgic quality our memories attach to certain places, especially when those places are filled with new and exciting cultural experiences when you first encounter them? As an early 1980’s member of Osan Air Base’s 6903 Electronic Security Command (nicknamed “Skivvy Nine”), the abrupt introduction to the Korean culture, both puzzling and fascinating, was such a time for my friends and me. Puzzling in that the rural countryside was far less modern on many levels, yet Seoul was obviously a fast developing, the sky’s the limit mega-city focused on modernization. Those two worlds, with the third world of the American “GI” orbiting between the two, fascinated us. Both of the Korean worlds, the traditional, rural based farming life and the high-speed, modern Seoul life begged for exploration when we had free time, which was erratic given we were all working rotating shifts. (I even had to give up my hopkido classes, as we just couldn’t attend on a consistent basis due to rotating, undermanned shifts.) As we wandered (for there was never a true plan) the regions of Korea, nearly all the distinct neighborhoods, the scenery, the architecture (traditional and modern), the telltale aromas, the people, the animals (farm and city), architecture, food, and regional nuance remained with me over the years.


View to Skivvy Nine (behind trees) from Osan AB Exchange, January 2007.

All the excursions that we were able to make in the early 1980’s have helped to inform my own nostalgia on my Korea experience. In this three-part series on rediscovering Korea, I will share with you some of my more memorable experiences during my Air Force tour, afterwards as a consultant and a private citizen, and then contrast that time with today. Wrapped around those experiences is a three decades plus marriage to a first generation Korean-American, born in San Francisco, whom I met in Washington, D.C., nearly a decade after my Korea tour. Finally, my volunteering with the National Park Service on the National Mall, primarily at the Korean War Veterans Memorial, has allowed me to use my experiences with Korea, along with my military career, my history background, and my teaching background, to give the fast disappearing Korean War veterans and their families a richer experience at the memorial. As you read the next paragraphs, think of your own past, present, and future experiences during your tour in Korea (or any new culture) and take a few mental snapshots of those places that impact you and your view of the world, so that you can return to them years later, and wonder if those places are the same, or if time and fading memory have changed them.


Chinese restaurant in Osan, Jan. 2007.

While there were limited (by time and finances) opportunities for a group of young enlisted to explore the country, we were able to wander the countryside surrounding Songtan, make a couple of trips to the Folk Village near Suwon, visit Seoul as often as practical, tour Incheon once or twice, take bus trips to craft sites, and, via MWR, take a trip to Jeju Island. Some friends, those who spoke Korean well, would often disappear during breaks and bring back lively tales of far monasteries with archer monks, or remote fishing villages with quaint inhabitants. Note that the ‘lifers’ would routinely travel to those remote seaside villages with gifts for the holidays, establishing a rural network to allow their families to escape in case the North invaded. Yes, the threat of invasion, or of hellfire raining down on us (and those who still serve), was always in the back of our minds.

One of the constant reminders of the threat from the north during my tour was the nation-wide curfew, which impacted nearly all aspects of daily life. Citizens and military alike had to be back on the base, at home, or in their hotel by midnight. This was also the time of no convertible autos, given the government’s fear of assassination attempts. One has to remember that a number of Korean presidents left office violently as the nation matured its democracy. The day the curfew was lifted, 06 January 1982, the entire country had a party. I recall returning to base quarters in the wee hours of the next morning from the downtown apartment of our team lead. We were worried, as most were, that the national police might swoop down on us at any moment, and that the lifting of the curfew could have been rescinded. Of note, we passed dozens of citizens passed out along the way, sleeping in doorways, and literally sprawled in the street where they (aided by their celebratory imbibing) had decided they could no longer make the trek home. Of course, we were not rounded up, and, the next day, all evidence of the wild night of freedom had been quietly cleaned up. After watching the emergence of an even more entrepreneurial spirit after the lifting of the curfew, part of me still believes it was the social change that the country needed to help spur the coming economic boom and relentless drive to the future.

Before visits to Seoul and the various regions of the country, the small village just outside the Osan gates was our first introduction to the country and was always welcoming. If one could maneuver around all the merchants trying to separate you from your pay, and avoid the more earthy amusements, the local area could be as rewarding as the longer trips. Garish to a fault, the few blocks just outside the gate reminded me of a visit to Del Rio, Texas, during USAF tech school, and walking across the bridge to the market village of Acuna, Mexico. The off base experience could be rewarding, if one filtered out the constant din of hawkers, bars, dashing children, beckoning shopkeepers, and the whiz of cars driven by (terrifying) first generation drivers. Early on, we found a great little Chinese restaurant just off the base, where we would retreat to for amazing food. The proprietor, whose family was from Shandong, as a number of post-PRC émigrés were (Korean as well as Chinese), even made fried shrimp for me, even though it was not a dish they offered. We also frequented one of the local ceramic shops, to the right from the old main gate, since the owner was honest and had fair prices. Years later, I discovered on a visit in 2007 that the ceramic shop owner had moved on, but that the Chinese restaurant was still going strong. Unfortunately, for the brief time I was there, the owner was home sick, but his son was behind the counter and could have been the twin of the man I had known over two decades before. I was happy that something was still in business (and recognizable) nearly three decades later.

Food, for young military members, was always on our minds. And, while the endless array of diverse Korean dishes certainly challenged the ‘newbies’ to widen our palates, we also missed some hard to get foods from back home. One memorable afternoon, we saw that a new pizza place had just opened, only a block from the gate, and, as anyone living away from good pizza knows, an irrational urge kicks in when one thinks there might be, just might be, decent pizza to be had. We got a table, read over the menu, with brightly colored photos of mouth-watering pizzas, ordered pepperoni, and waited with our tongues hanging out of our mouths. The pizza arrived and, even though the aroma didn’t assail us as we thought it would (there was almost no aroma), we dug in and abruptly stopped. Not pepperoni. Not even pizza. Disappointed, but not wanting to be the ‘ugly American,’ I called the owner over and asked what kind of pizza was before us. He was genuinely puzzled and, after I assured him that it was not, by any definition, a pepperoni pizza, or even a tomato based pizza, he asked us to wait and disappeared into the back. He returned with a food magazine, in English, and turned to a well-thumbed page. Proudly pointing to a photo of a pepperoni pizza, he challenged us to argue that his version did not look exactly like the photo. Realization dawned on us, that the owner had meticulously reproduced the exact look of the photo, but had none of the actual, traditional pizza ingredients. So, we spent a long time with him outlining what he should be putting on the pizzas, if he would be able to get the right supplies. When I looked for the pizza joint twenty-five years on, several pizza parlors had sprung up, so I never learned if that original place had ever moved beyond the photograph.


The old Osan Hotel, just outside the old main gate at Osan AB, near where
that old pizza parlor should have been. Jan. 2007.

One of the special destinations not far from the base was the little Songtan orphanage, set back on a small hill along one of the main roads south of the town center, now part of Pyeongtaek. On the walks to the orphanage, a few remnants of old Korea remained in the early 1980’s. Mothers still carried their babies in those snug backpack ‘podaegi’ wraps. We marveled at the ‘Y’ frame carriers that enabled both men and women to carry monstrous loads along the country roads, especially at harvest or on market days. We had to dodge the ever-present, homemade motorcycle carts moving goods around the countryside, spelling the eventual demise of the few donkey carts we saw. While the orphanage was not fancy, it was snug and those that ran it were caring and gave the children a good home. Skivvy Nine and the Base Supply Squadron were the orphanage’s benefactors and we always took treats to the children on holidays. The children, polite and very respectful, were always appreciative of not only the treats, but of the time we spent with them. The sheer joy and sense of amazement on those little children’s faces crossed any language barrier. The older teens, graduates of the orphanage, who returned on the bus from Seoul on the weekends to tutor the school age children, were angels in the eyes of the little ones, for an education scholarship was a sound road out of the orphanage. As with any family, for the group was a family in its way, there was a little girl who was the darling of the children. Everyone assumed she would get adopted soon, probably by an American couple, and everyone wanted that for her, even though you could see the sadness in the eyes of the older children who knew that the older they became, the less likely they would be adopted. We never knew if that little girl was ever adopted, as my group left before that, but one can hope. Coincidentally, over twenty years later, one of our closest friends had been adopted along with her sister by an American couple posted to Seoul, in the early 1980’s. Also of note, just before I PCS’d, a new agreement had been reached on orphans fathered (or possibly fathered) by American military personnel, so that the stigma of being a mixed-raced child, while not fully erased, was eased somewhat by a number of programs that promoted goodwill and backed that goodwill with funding. It was a small beginning and one could only hope for its long-term success.


Korean War Memorial at National Mall & Memorial Parks.

Fast forward to today, and, on the 27 July Armistice Day Ceremony at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, I had the honor to not only assist the Korean War Veterans Memorial Foundation (https://koreanwarvetsmemorial.org), I also helped a young local student, not part of the program, but visiting the memorial, who was doing a summer research paper on human reactions to the memorial, the war, and experiences in Korea. I helped the student meet and interview a number of the dignitaries and the veterans. The youth volunteered that she had been adopted, seventeen years earlier, from an orphanage in Pyeongtaek. Surprised, I offered we used to support an orphanage in Songtan, Pyeongtaek. The student replied that was her orphanage. What are the immense odds that I’d run into someone originally from Songtan while crafting this piece on Korea?

On my first return to Osan after over twenty-five years, in the winter of 2007, I was surprised that we were able to take the train all the way from Seoul. We passed massive new towns not there twenty-five years earlier. Today, even larger and more complex planned cities have sprung up along the corridor that, during my tour, had been a sea of farms, rice paddies, hilly forests, and small villages. Although the closer area of Songtan just off the base had retained a good deal of its merchant-focused nature, there were a lot more globally branded shops and restaurant chains three decades on. Today, I’m told the town beyond the immediate area of the base is on its way to becoming a mini-Seoul, as are so many of the planned areas of Korea. The base itself, while modernized, still had the same footprint and, other than a lot of newer buildings, looked much the same. I had asked our driver to drive the perimeter, which allowed us to see that the perimeter machine gun nests, manned around the clock in 1982, they had always given the base an air of wartime footing. All seemed to have been replaced by highly modern, automated defenses. Returning to Osan was a highlight of that visit and, once travel is opened up again, I hope to again wander the base, Songtan, and the surrounding area, in search of yesterday and new surprises brought on by the march of progress.

Once we had our bearings locally, we took every opportunity to travel beyond Osan and Songtan, with the main destination being Seoul, that burgeoning mega-city straddling the Han River, which we will cover in Part II.


Korean War Memorial at National Mall & Memorial Parks.

 

About author

Charles T. Mitchell is a writer of novels and short stories, a former national security and commercial consultant, a retired USAF officer, and a current member of US National Park Service’s Volunteers in Parks, primarily at the Korean War Veterans Memorial, Washington, DC. His first overseas assignment was with the former 6903rd Electronic Security Squadron, Osan Air Base, Korea, from Sep 1981-Sep 1982, for which he later received the US Korean Defense Service Medal (created in 2002).His most recent book of short stories, Hues of Seoul: Mystery and Suspense in Today’s Korea, was inspired by his time in Korea, later visits, today’s global Korea reach, his three decades-plus marriage to a first generation Korean-American, and his role as uncle and godfather to his second-generation Korean-American grandniece, and her little brother. For more background, please see the website.

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