In November of 1950, Uncle Sam pointed his long bony finger at my father and ordered this able-bodied U.S. citizen to do his military duty. And so Robert Jack Hoolsema packed his bags and set off to do his part in the confusing mess that was the Korean War. He marched into a maze of uncertainties. Even the question of what would constitute victory was unclear: would restoring the 38th parallel as the North-South border prove satisfactory for both sides? Or, in the interest of topographic tidiness, would the allies need to push the border of a unified “free” Korea all the way up to the Yalu River where North Korea shares a border with Communist China? Or, as General Douglas MacArthur urged, would we have to push past this line and do whatever might be necessary to liberate China as well? Amid such ambiguities, the Cold War’s turning hot drew a lukewarm response from the United States and its United Nations allies.
In the dim light of such a scene, it seems appropriate that the Korean War was never even declared a “war.” President Harry Truman never asked for such in order to skirt a possible veto by a Congress dominated in both houses by Republicans. So 33,000 U. S. soldiers were destined to die fighting in something less than a war–in a U.N.-sponsored “police action.”
Still, when called my dad packed his bags and boarded a troop train bound for Camp Carson, near Colorado Springs, Colorado. Following nine months of basic training with the 196th Regimental Combat Team, he was sent off to Fort Richardson, just outside of Anchorage, Alaska. It was there that my dad would do his part in the war effort by defending Elmendorf Air Force Base against Soviet attack. Dad was a soldier.
I think it’s safe to say that my dad did not exactly enjoy his time in the army. In fact, I’d say that he had an allergic reaction to it. Gone was the quiet, well-knit community of like-minded Dutch folk who’d settled into the near southeast side of Grand Rapids–Michigan’s answer to Lake Wobegon. Three thousand miles from home he settled into his new tent-compound and tuned his ear to the unfamiliar accents that sounded there, a Babel of Americans from Irish, Italian, Polish, German, Cherokee, and Inuit Indian backgrounds. And all this in Alaska, the U.S. answer to Soviet Siberia. Then there was, of course, the food. His mother had raised him on fare his Dutch genes understood–hutspot, soep en brie, and boerskool to name a few. In the army, his Uncle Sam fed him such messes as green eggs, C-rations, and chicken rare enough to peck at the corn on his plate. There was also the matter of religion. His deeply devout parents had reared a strictly conservative Calvinist who knew his creeds and catechism by rote. Meanwhile, in the generously ecumenical U.S. Army, Dad listened to sermons delivered by the Episcopal chaplain, seated on benches next to Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, Anabaptists, and all other comers who had swum the Tiber.
But none of this was really the problem for Dad. Adjustments yes, but nothing that time, patience, good nature, good humor, and even curiosity couldn’t reconcile one to. Being torn away from everywhere, everyone, and everything comfortably familiar, being dropped into a foreign place among strange folks, being armed with rifles and grenades posed nothing more than a challenge. And dad has never had a problem with challenges. He’s tough. Growing up, I would ask my dad to tell again the story about being on bivouac for three weeks in the Alaskan winter in 50º below zero weather. Or about the time when, after his squadron had cross-country skied fifteen miles with 60-lb. packs, plus M1 rifles, on their backs, he glanced over at a husky, tough-guy sergeant skiing next to him to see tears running down his face, he was hurting so bad. “I guess I knew then that we were working,” he’d say. Or about night-time tactical maneuvers–crawling bloody knee and elbow over rocks under barbed wire and a low ceiling of live rounds from 30-caliber machine guns lit up by tracer bullets strafing the darkness like maniacal fireflies.
But, again, these gauntlets weren’t what his system reacted against. Remember, he is Dutch, and this is a people tough, stubborn, or just plain dumb enough to pick a fight with the North Sea by raising up dykes in order to graze cattle on the ocean floor and live below sea level.
No, what really rubbed against his grain was being told what to do. Dad bristled at the knowledge that every cell of his body, every movement of his will, his name, his rank, the serial number stamped on the dog tag that would identify his body should it, say, be disfigured beyond recognition in battle–everything except his soul belonged to the U.S. Army. Situated somewhere deep within the U.S. military machine (in the Department of the Army [Regular], 5th Field Army, Infantry Division, 196th Regimental Combat Team, 2nd Battalion, F Company, 2nd Platoon), Private First Class Robert J. Hoolsema (US 55052545) stood at attention, prepared to do exactly as he was told. And as the saying went among the grunts, “If you don’t do as you’re told, you’ll wish you had.”
And so, every morning for 24 months–730 days–he opened his eyes at 0530 hours to the dulcet tones of the sergeant’s whistling and barking, “I want blood and hair on the doorpost,” swung his feet to the floor, stood up, buttoned up his olive drab herring-bone twill fatigues, laced up his leather combat boots, fell out for roll call, and then did as he was told. (Anyone who did complain was instructed to go see the chaplain to pick up his TS [Tough Shit] card.) For my dad, this time in the army was, in a sense, one long close-order drill: “order arms,” “shoulder arms,” “present arms,” “support arms,” “right shoulder shift arms,” “secure arms,” “trail arms,” “inspection arms,” “stack arms,” “right face,” “left face,” “about face,” and so on. For two years.
Of course, no one viewed the endless training and drilling the army put him through as pointless. Everyone there knew all too well that the war games they played weren’t for fun. With only fifty four miles of Bering Sea between the westernmost Aleutian island and the Siberian coastline, the Red Army was practically within shouting distance of the U.S. border. Were the Russians to mount a lightning attack on Alaska’s two Air Force bases–Elmendorf and Isleson–the Territory of Alaska would fall and, next thing you’d know, Russian T-34 tanks would be rumbling down the Alcan Highway headed for Seattle. Today this scenario sounds like the plot of a late-night B-movie. But in Cold War 1951, the danger was real and present. Hence the tactical maneuvering. Hence the close-order drilling. The games were for keeps.
* * *
One steaming, hot, hazy Sunday afternoon last July, while visiting some friends in Washington, D.C., I drove downtown, parked in view of the glassy Potomac, and bought a lemon Italian ice that I nursed as I strolled past sweaty pick-up soccer games. Eventually I wandered onto the southern edge of the mall, in between the Lincoln and Washington Memorials, mentally napping in the close heat, head down, studying the sidewalk. Then I noticed out of the corner of my eye a bronze statue. I looked up to see more of the same.
It wasn’t exactly a group. It was more like a scattering of statues of soldiers. As I walked around to the front of the memorial (I still didn’t know what of), the soldiers’ faces came into view. They looked like, well, they were dead men walking. Vacant eyes stared out from skeletal faces that bore no recognizable expression. It was because the light in their eyes had gone out. The faces seemed to show that the soldiers knew their country would soon forget both them and their mission. Forget them even before the war was over.
I dropped my ice stick in a trashcan and joined a group of people there who, milling about, were feeling lost. Consciously or not, we were searching for a place to stand, a position that would give us a perspective on–and help us make sense of–this rather unsettling memorial. North across the reflecting pool the Vietnam Memorial gives that war the sense of a full stop by gathering together the name of every one of its casualties. To the east there was a building–the World War II Memorial–which now gives the visitor a precisely marked center to stand in, and thus a commanding perspective from which to take in the good memory of a war with clearly defined goals, like Berlin and Tokyo, and unambiguous victories, like VE and VJ days. In contrast, the Korean War Memorial seems to leave the visitor stranded within a blurry circumference that has no clear center. There are no names carved in marble, only anonymous numbers of casualties, POWs, and MIAs–those whose identities were lost in the war and might never be accounted for.
It is a memorial to a war that was never officially declared a war, that was fought to no more clearly defined an end than to raise a dyke against the Red flood-tide, and to no less ambiguous a victory than redrawing, in April 1953, the North-South Korean border at the 38th parallel. This is the very same latitude where, eight years earlier at Yalta, Truman and Stalin had casually divided the Korean peninsula between the United States and Russia. This border Mi Jung Dok’s Communist troops had pushed south almost to the beaches of the East China Sea; then MacArthur’s U.S.-led U.N. forces had driven it back to the original starting point and on north to the Yalu River, at least until the Chinese-reinforced North Koreans redrew it, this time in blood, at the original latitude of 38º North. Right where it began. In other words, dad’s war turned out to be a massive, bloody stalemate that most Americans would just as soon forget.
As I turned away to walk towards the chiseled white marble block of the Lincoln Memorial, my eyes fell on a long colorful row of wreaths that flanked the sidewalk. They were propped up on wire tripods and angled to face the silent verdigris soldiers. Other than seeing the names of different European and Asian nations stamped on the silk ribbons that fluttered from the wreaths, I saw no explanation for them. Still, they gave me a vague feeling of fatigue or unease, the sort of feeling I get glimpsing visitors in graveyards on Memorial Day as I speed off to the beach. Then, behind me, I overheard a woman saying that today was the 50th anniversary of the Armistice that ended the Korean War. I glanced to my left at the forlorn, skeletal faces.
A few minutes later, standing inside the cool, crowded, noisy interior of the Lincoln Memorial, I managed to read in the Gettysburg Address scored into the marble wall about how this nation would “never forget” those who “gave the last full measure of devotion” on its behalf. I wondered how this line applies to veterans of the Korean War. More than 33,000 U.S. soldiers gave the last full measure of devotion in this conflict. Millions more made lesser sacrifices. For those who survived, how did this experience affect their faith in their country? How did it affect their devotion to God? Some, blessed never to have seen action, just stood guard duty for two years in a bitterly cold northern outpost five degrees south of the Arctic Circle. Still, like it or not, whether they were outside Anchorage or at Inchon, they did their duty. They gave up what was familiar and comfortable. They gave up years of their lives. Some of them gave up the rest of the years of their lives.
To what end do we remember? Do we forget? Dad remembered some, and forgot some, as he moved along with the rest of his life. What do we fantasize, what do we ignore, as we send off another generation to the nasty combats that flit across the screens of our evening news? What is their devotion, and what is ours?