Retreads

J.R. - Arlington, Virginia
Entered on March 15, 2005
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: legacy, war

I talk to the folks on Sundays, late in the afternoon when things are pretty much wrapped up for the weekend. They are normally watching golf, and I am looking at whatever seasonal sport is on. It was basketball yesterday, though they could as well have televised people working on tax returns. I gave up on mine, since the automated program I use was not giving me the correct answers.

It may be too hard this year to do it the easy way. It is just something else to worry about, like the law passed yesterday by the Peoples Republic of China that they would use military force to subjugate Taiwan if they pursued independence. Or the impact of the repeated deployments to Iraq was having on the active and reserve force. I heard a radio show about a Marine outfit that was headed back for the third time since the invasion.

Most of the guys were had done all three, but the enlistments were just about up, and there was a lot of pressure on them from the families. “It is either the Corps, or me,” said one wife.

Dad was pretty feisty on the phone. He had been a Navy flier in his time, dive-bombers at the end of WW II and then the big blue airplane they called the AD4J. That was the official name, anyway. Everyone else called them Spads, after the great fighter of the First War, because straight-and-level, it could outrun a P-51 Mustang and haul more tonnage than a B-17. Dad says they were fun to fly.

One of the issues around the family dinette table on Sussex Street in Detroit was the Recall. The big demobilization after the defeat of Japan had left the Services without the skill-sets required to defeat the Chinese Army in the field, and a lot of guys in their late twenties with new wives and new houses and new babies were getting letters from the Defense Department to pack for the war in Korea.

The process was like what they did during the years of rationing. There were no new tires to be had for the old cars. When a tire became bald, they vulcanized some new tread onto it. The remanufactured tires had a distressing tendency to come apart, but the re-treads were all that were available.

Dad was already on his way with his civilian career in the auto industry, flying the big airplane on the weekends. They would fly from the Naval Air Station at Grosse Isle against simulated targets in Ohio. Mom clearly did not want him to go, and I don’t know if my arrival in 1951 affected his status or not, but my brother came along in late 1952 and in the end, he was not called.

I don’t know what got him going yesterday, but he was concerned about one of the relatives, a Marine of the Greatest Generation. He had been a front line grunt in the Pacific, and carried a flame-thrower on Iwo Jima. The device was a back-back canister filled with jellied gasoline connected by a hose to a nozzle. He was a sort of mirror-image fireman, a first responder from Hell.

If a Japanese bullet hit the tanks, the carrier would be covered in burning petroleum. An occupational hazard.

He did his honorable service and returned Stateside to do what everyone else did, work hard, get married and start families. Then the letter came. The Marines needed him again.

I don’t know what he did, precisely, nor had I considered the impact of the recall on those young lives.

The “Police Action” on the peninsula officially lasted from June 25, 1950 to July 27, 1953, what is known as the “Conflict Period” officially extends to Jan. 31, 1955. In view of what happened after that, the infiltrations and DMZ shootings, they extended the period right up through my 14 months there in 1980-81.

I got a medal in the mail the other day, just for being there. It was overdue recognition for the men and women who served all after the Conflict Period was over and the un-war dragged on. But no one wanted to talk about the inconclusive slaughter for years.

Between 1950 and 1955, nearly six million personnel serviced in the US armed forces. About 20% of this number had also served in WWII. One point eight million of them served in the Far East Command, with over a million and a half on the Peninsula. Peak strength of U.S. ground forces in Korea totaled 302,483 in July 1953.

Initially, Marine and Navy reservists were called up to active duty to supplement regular Army forces. A friend of mine told me that her father had been sitting at the breakfast table and heard that he had been recalled on the radio. He had been in the Army and had seen things on Okinawa that he didn’t talk about. He put down his fork, packed his duffle and went off to war again. He left his oil business and his young family behind, and did what he had to do.

He didn’t talk about what he saw there, either. No one seemed to be interested. His military records were stored in the big archive in Saint Louis. On July 12, 1973, a disastrous fire at broke out in the warehouse and destroyed approximately 18 million Military Personnel Files. Most Army service records for those that served between 1912 and 1960 were lost, along with Air Force records from the establishment of the Service to January 1, 1964, family names from “Hub” to “Z.”

My friend’s father is dead, and his medals were stolen, and now no one will know what he did.

The “retreads” from WWII were essential in leavening the ranks of the draftees, providing experience in how to survive under fire. The war was not a popular thing, and enlistments were low. The draft had to make up the difference. Selective Service Director of the time, Lewis B. Hershey, said “Everyone wants out; no one wants in.”

On campus, the view was the same as young men took advantage of the newly created “student deferment.” As the saying went, “there are two things we gotta avoid: Korea and gonorrhea.”

When the troops came home there was little mention or public note. There had been no decisive victory, and the ambiguous nature of ground combat in the nuclear age was not an easy sell to the public. The families welcomed their men home, and they took off their uniforms and went back to work to make up the extra years donated to Uncle Sam.

Dad was pretty agitated about the lack of recognition for the Retreads. He thinks that anyone who beat the Empire of the Sun, and then was called back to march north of Pyongyang in the bitter cold, and nearly got caught in the big Chinese encirclement at the Chosin Reservoir, and fought his way out on the frozen gravel roads ought to get some special mention.

I told my father I agreed with him.