Three-Minute Memoir

September 29, 2013

My Long Journey to Korea

By Floyd Douglas Sizemore

DougLeeKoreaOn November 3rd, 1948, less than two months after my 17th birthday, I enlisted in the “new peacetime Army” at Fort Holabird, in Baltimore, Maryland. That “peacetime” part sounded pretty good. Being just a kid, I had no idea where Korea was—I doubt I’d even heard of it, and at the time I’m sure I couldn’t have quickly pointed to it on a world map—so it was not something to which I gave any thought, and I sure didn’t see a war coming around the corner.

The army, though, was exciting to me from the start. I grew up poor—my family never had much of anything—but right off the bat the military supplied me with all these new clothes: shirts, pants, shorts, t-shirts, boots—everything—even a pair of shiny black dress shoes. I also liked the food (my favorite was the creamed chipped beef on toast, a.k.a. “SOS”), but didn’t manage to gain weight, at least at first. During basic training we ran everywhere, so I actually lost weight, down from my enlistment weight of 110 pounds to 95. But after basic I quickly packed it all back on, and then some.

After finishing the eight weeks of basic training at Camp Pickett, Virginia, in January 1949, I was assigned to the 11th, AAA BN, at Fort Bliss, Texas, where I was trained on M19 Twin 40s mounted on a light tank, and the M16 Quad 50s mounted on a halftrack. In November 1949, the 11th AAA, and me with it, was relocated to Fort Lewis, Washington, to continue training. Up until then, my impression of military service had been formed, for the most part, from watching B-movies at neighborhood movie theaters, where I guess I got the idea that if you were smart enough, you could get away with a lot of stuff—like not saluting officers. I tested that theory several times and found myself walking extra guard duty around the Fort Lewis prison.

After a 15-day leave in January 1950, I was put on orders for Japan. Then, six months later, I was told to report to Camp Stoneman, California. I remember thinking that since I had already served over a year in the army, any tour of duty in Japan would be a short one. So I was in a pretty good mood when our Sergeant marched us to the front gate of Fort Lewis and used a lantern to flag down a passing train. I was surprised when the train actually stopped right outside the gate to pick us up. It was an overnight ride from Ft. Lewis, WA to Camp Stoneman, and I reported there on June 23. Then came the big surprise—North Korea invaded South Korea. Suddenly, things didn’t look so good, and to make matters worse, I would soon learn that Korea was just across the narrowest part of the Sea of Japan.

In early July 1950, we boarded a ship and sailed out of San Francisco Bay headed for Japan, or at least that’s what they told us. But instead, a few days later, we sailed into Puget Sound in Seattle, Washington. Later, we found out that they needed our ship to transport the 2nd Division directly to Korea, so we spent a week at sea making a huge circle—or was it an oval? Talk about “hurry up and wait.” In Seattle, they put us up in a naval barracks on Pier 91 for several days, organizing us into something that the army called “packets.” I was in packet 13.

At McChord airbase in Pierce County, Washington, we boarded C54s for Japan by way of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. We landed in Yokohama about three days later. After about a week, most of the men were assigned to the 24th and 25th Divisions in Korea. Some of us were sent to northern Honshu, Japan. We took a civilian-packed train overnight. After arriving at Camp Hargen around the first of August, I was assigned to B Battery, 865th AAA BN, located at Misawa airbase. I spent the remainder of 1950 in routine training.

KoreanWarMap1I was beginning to like Japan, thinking that my tour of duty would soon be up and I’d be on my way back to the States for discharge. Then came June 1951, and our outfit was put on alert for Korea.  Our equipment was upgraded, and on July 19, 1951, around midnight, we were loaded on an LST manned by a Japanese crew. There were crazy tides in the Sea of Japan, which accounted for using local crews who knew the area, and we spent six days on the water. We had to stand up to eat at a long metal table. Breakfast was hard-boiled eggs and we slept on cots on in hammocks. One night we hit some really rough weather with 30-40 mph winds. The next morning the seas were still choppy, and I remember watching a hard-boiled egg roll down one of those metal tables. Strange, the images that stick in your mind.

We arrived in Inchon, Korea on July 25, 1951, and the next day at Kimpo airbase, northwest of Seoul, to relieve the 50th AAA AW BN. All positions were occupied and by 0800 we went on alert. Our job at K14 was defense of the airfield. At first, we were issued live small arms ammo, but our commanding officer in B Battery took it away, saying, “I don’t want you guys acting like you think you’re John Wayne.” Each evening, around sunset, we were harassed by a pesky PO2 reconnaissance aircraft. Some clever guy gave the pilot the name, “Bed Check Charlie.” In August, “Operation Rat Trap,” an attempt to shoot Charlie down, was put into place. But as far as I know it never worked. By the time we scrambled and got to our gun positions, he was on his way back up North.

Once again, my mouth got me in a bit trouble when I complained about how ineffective operation “Rat Trap” turned out to be. The commanding officer, a captain, called me into his office and remarked on what he termed my “bad attitude.” As I recall, our little chat went something like this:

HE: Sizemore, you don’t like the way I run this outfit, do you?

ME: No sir.

HE: Well, would you prefer to go to the front instead?

ME: No Sir. I’m too close as it is. Send me to Pusan. (Pusan is in the southern part of Korea, close to Japan, and at that time was far from any of the action.)

HE: I’m sending you to D Battery. (That was on the other side of the airfield, still at Kimpo.)

In September 1951, I heard through the military grapevine that my brother Lee was in Korea, somewhere around Seoul, and I asked my sergeant for permission to go visit him. I failed to mention that I had no idea exactly where Lee was, and that I’d just have to trust to luck that I would find him. “Take off,” the sergeant said, “we’ll cover for you. All we’re doing is just setting around waiting for something to happen.” So I hitchhiked both ways, and asked around, but no luck. I told some of the guys if they ran into him, to let him know I was looking for him.

Two days later, back in D Battery, I was sitting on my gun position when I spotted a guy walking up the road toward me, and something in his gait looked familiar. Sure enough, it was brother Lee. We had a great reunion, including a lunch that I remember featured—of all things—“snowflake” potatoes. After lunch, as he was leaving, Lee told me he was scheduled to rotate home soon, and that he’d see me back in Baltimore. Then, only a few days later, he showed up again—this time with a surprise birthday gift (I turned 20 on September 13, 1951).

“I thought you were going home,” I said. Lee smiled. “I brought you a little present.” Then he pulled a 38-caliber revolver from the waistband under his shirt, and handed it to me. It was absolutely beautiful, with pearl handles, just like the one General Patton carried in WWII. I patted my 40mm and protested that I didn’t need a pistol, but he insisted. “For when you’re walking guard duty,” he said. “Just a little extra protection. You never know.” When we parted company that day, Lee’s last words to me were, “Take care of yourself.”

In early December 1951, our gun crew was moved to Outpost #4, nine miles northwest of Kimpo, on the Han River. We had a Marine artillery crew to our right. Our orders were to fire at anything that could be used as an observation post—houses, barns, even humps of high ground on the bank of the river. After about a week, we had turned the landscape and the village below our gun position into rubble. Then our outfit was relieved and we pulled back to Kimpo. Later, we had a great Christmas dinner, and then our biggest show came on New Years’ Day 1952, soon after we were again put on alert. Every gun position from Kimpo to Seoul was ordered to lay down blanketing fire for ten minutes in an attempt to “open up” the surrounding areas. It looked like the 4th of July, but it also seemed to me that the fireworks were called off almost as soon as they started. They never told us the results of all that firepower, if any.

In March 1952 I was assigned to the 1st Platoon Command Post and promoted to the rank of Corporal. After one year in Japan and eleven months in Korea, I had accumulated enough “points” to return to the States. In June 1952 I took a 14-day sea cruise—this time directly back home to Baltimore.

Copyright © 2013, Floyd Douglas Sizemore

Double Future

October 29, 2008

One Saturday morning in 1944, when I was seven years old, my half-sister took me shopping at Cross Street Market in South Baltimore. By the time we got back out onto South Charles Street, she had the handles of two large cloth bags of fresh meat and vegetables in one hand, and was struggling to control me with the other. I had stopped in my tracks and was looking up at the Garden Theater marquee across the street, testing my new reading skills: “Double Future,” I said. “What’s that?”

“It’s ‘feature,’ not ‘future,'” my sister said. “It means you get two movies for the price of one.” It was common in those days for a country boy my age, new to the big city, to be ignorant in such worldly matters. My family had moved to Baltimore from Virginia the year before so that my father, a carpenter, could find work in the shipyards. “What’s a movie?” I asked. Pulling me along toward Hanover Street and home, my sister explained as best she could. To keep me moving, she promised to take me soon to see my first “moving picture show.”

I can’t remember if my sister kept that promise, but someone must have, because I’ve been going to movies ever since. In subsequent years I saw many shows at that very same Garden Theater. One Saturday morning show at the Garden stands out in my mind. It was 1950 or ’51, I was 13 or 14, and by then, of course, I had been allowed to attend movies alone for some time. I was sitting where I always did, in the very last row with my back against the wall. (I could never understand why many of the kids crowded close to the front of the theater—some so near the screen that they had to look straight up to see the distorted images moving in the light.) The newsreel was on. Pictures of tanks going into combat over hilly terrain; soldiers, their rifles at the ready, running alongside the metal monsters. I don’t remember the exact words, but the narrator was saying something like: “On May 15, U. S. tanks crossed the 38th Parallel and penetrated 13 miles into North Korea.” Music swelled, then died. More pictures, the camera keeping well back from the action, detached. The film showed men being wounded and killed, but from so far away it was oddly glorious and didn’t look to be at all painful.

I had joined the line in front of the theater at 9 o’clock that morning, and the box office began selling tickets at 10. The newsreel began minutes after I was seated, and we kids were on good behavior during it. But when the Technicolor cartoon flashed on the screen, we let go, responding to the animated antics with hand clapping, screaming and stamping feet. We hooted the villain—Bluto—and cheered the exploits of the hero—Popeye. Some of the kids left their seats and ran up and down the aisles. Spitballs, like fireflies, traced beautiful arcs through the projected light.

After the cartoon, a technical hitch caused a delay while the projectionist tried to get the weekly serial installment of “Captain America” started. We quickly grew restless again, yelling, firing cap pistols, and popping air-filled popcorn bags. Again we stamped our feet, this time in unison, louder and louder, until it sounded like a herd of angry elephants in a Tarzan movie crossing a wooden bridge. When the harried man in the projection booth finally got the film going, he turned the sound up to compete with our noise. We called him and raised him. After several noise level exchanges, the clamor became deafening. Then, suddenly, the screen went black and the soundtrack silent. The house lights came up and the squat, serious-looking theater manager marched down the aisle to the stage. He raised his arms and yelled, “Just hold it!” The screaming and stamping of feet quickly diminished to an angry murmur. The manager smiled. “Now, here’s how it’s gonna be,” he said. “The movie is over . . . ” A few kids started yelling again, but without much support they quickly dropped it. The manager continued, “The movie will be over—unless things get under control around here.” He looked slowly around the theater, concentrating his glare on each one of us individually it seemed. “The law is clear,” he said. “I don’t have to show no movie to no unruly mob.” The murmur of young voices now included quite a few clear “Yes sirs.” The manager smiled and signaled the projectionist, and the rest of the program was screened without further trouble.

We enjoyed the serial and the two-reel comedy—”Joe Dokes Behind the Eight Ball,” if I remember correctly—and we soon became absorbed in the main feature. It was “Breakthrough,” a war drama that followed the development of a group of infantrymen from basic training through the Allied invasion of France. Like the newsreel, it had a narrator (Frank Lovejoy, one of the stars of the move itself), and, as young recruits ran an obstacle course, he was saying, “It was not just another training exercise. Whatever was coming, we knew it was going to be big—with a capital ‘B’.”

Lovejoy was a tough sergeant who helped a young officer—Lieutenant Mallory, played by John Agar—adjust to the problems of combat command. I was drawn in. The movie was like music to me, it bypassed my rational mind and acted directly on my emotions, and I became lost in the romantic vision of men at war. Even when the camera came in close on the make-believe wounded and dying men, there was nothing gory about it—no blood. The young men lying in the arms of their buddies and reciting their last words were heroic figures.

When the movie ended and the theater lights came up, I stayed scrunched in my seat, legs hugged to my chest, chin resting on my knees, watching the credits roll. All around me, kids stood and stretched and yawned and greeted each other, then began filing toward the exits. I remained staring intently at the screen, reading the names of each person who helped make the movie. And I was trying to decide if I should stay to see the entire program a second time.

Double Future was originally published, in a slightly different form and under a slightly different title (and without these illustrations), in the Baltimore Sunday Sun Magazine on February 1, 1981.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.