Posted by: Bob Ringma | April 1, 2011

Welcome

War is usually portrayed in the popular media as the firing of weapons and the movement of troops, ships and aircraft.  Occasionally, a movie such as M*A*S*H will show another side of war such as the medical.   But we don’t often hear about the logistical operations:  the furnishing of food, water, supplies, and laundry and bath facilities.

As a junior officer in the Canadian Army during the Korean war, I was assigned to the Mobile Laundry and Bath Unit — the MLBU.  It was my responsibility to move laundry and bath equipment with personnel to locations near the front where there was some form of running water, so we could provide the troops with the luxury of a shower and clean clothing.  The process of locating these sites was in itself an adventure.

The goal of this blog is to supplement my 2004 memoir M*L*B*U Full Monty in Korea with more stories about Canada’s MLBU during the Korean War.

Posted by: Bob Ringma | September 20, 2011

THE FLOOD

Korea is a land of weather extremes.  Spring and fall can be very pleasant, but summers are hot and winters are very cold.  It’s no wonder GI’s nicknamed the country “the frozen Chosen.”  In addition, the hot months bring monsoons.  During the summer of 1951 we moved the MLBU frequently.  On one occasion, we were located beside a small stream.  With more experience, I might have realized that, although there was not a big flow of water, there was a reason why the streambed was so much wider than the creek.  I would soon find out – the hard way.

 

While I usually spent my nights with the unit, one rainy Saturday I decided to stay overnight at the OFP to socialize with the guys there.  The next morning my CO yelled at me, “Wake up, Bob, your unit has been flooded out.”  I got dressed quickly and went to our site where I found that the stream had become a river.  In a matter of hours, the water level had risen five feet, flooding all our equipment, sleeping quarters and exchange clothing supplies. The men had been able to get their personal gear to higher ground but everything else was swamped.  I learned that the heavy monsoon rains fill all the rice paddies at the same time.  The paddies, in turn, overflow simultaneously, sending torrents of water to the streambeds below.

C rations

Our men didn’t seem to mind the upset.  I found them cheerfully packing C rations across the river to replace the fresh rations lost in the downpour.  Perhaps they realized that they were going to get an unexpected holiday while the unit got on its feet again.  Much of our stocks of clothing had been swept away, although some of it was being salvaged by an enterprising Korean standing downstream and feeling for clothes floating by in the muddy waters.  That laundry trailer was no longer serviceable and was towed back to a field workshop for repairs.  In fact, the overhaul was so slow that WO2 Reid and Corporal Laviolette, our fitter, tired of waiting to get the laundry operational, finally got the trailer from the workshop and did the repairs themselves.


Korean salvager


post flood uniform

Posted by: Bob Ringma | September 11, 2011

THE BOFORS

Since there was virtually no enemy threat from the skies, anti-aircraft guns were used in a ground role.  I was exposed to a potential hazard because of this.  I had met a British artillery lieutenant who invited me to Sunday lunch at his mess.  His unit was armed with 40 mm Bofors antiaircraft guns which were used in a ground role like ordinary field artillery.  After lunch, I was given a tour and shown one of their guns.  (I said to myself, “The Brits really do know how to conduct a gentlemanly war.”)  They then briefed me on “engaging the enemy” and pointed out a Chinese position about 4,000 yards away across a valley.  I was then asked if I would like to participate in a shoot, be a “guest gunner” as it were.

“Well, yes I would!”

“Good-oh; then you can climb up on the gun and be Number One.”

 

The gun had a platform over it and the position of number one was on top of that platform, out in the open.  The rest of the crew was sheltered below.  When someone yelled “Fire,” I was to stomp on the trigger.  It really wasn’t very complicated and we fired the gun several times and watched the shells explode on the enemy position across the valley.  It was good fun, especially to visualize the enemy scrambling across the way.

 

We were obviously out of small arms range, but I didn’t know if the Chinese had artillery available, nor did it occur to me to ask.  If they had, I now realized that as Number One I was in the most exposed position.  Fire was not returned, so I got away with it, and now had bragging rights of a sort.  We returned to the officers’ mess tent and celebrated our small victory.  And that was the end of my time as a gunner.

Posted by: Bob Ringma | August 30, 2011

HAZARDS

HAZARDS

Enemy action is not the only hazard one faces in a war zone.  Our own troops can be dangerous too, especially when they are green.  Before arriving in Korea we had only used  live ammunition on a rifle range while being closely supervised.  Now suddenly everyone was armed with real bullets.  It made me nervous, especially during a blackout.

 

I entered the OFP lines one night and was challenged by the soldier on guard duty, Private Fecteau.  He said, “Stop,” so I stopped.  Then, recognizing me he said, “Mister Rigma (that’s how most Francophones pronounce my name) when I say stop you’re supposed to answer watch.  Obviously I had not bothered to learn the password and countersign of the day, so was given a little lecture by Fecteau, and rightly so.  I let myself off the hook afterwards by rationalizing that there should not have been a password combination using the word “stop” any more than there should have been one with the word “halt.”

Enemy aircraft were not a hazard for our troops on the ground.  Allied bombers and fighters were engaged in the skies above, but they had little or no impact on the formations below.  However, there were a couple of exceptions.  One I encountered during a visit to the Canadian artillery regiment.  Its adjutant and I were talking outside his office van when we heard, and then saw, a jet about 200 feet off the ground coming at us.  It released what looked like a bomb and the two of us hit the deck.  There was no explosion, so feeling a bit sheepish, we both got to our feet.  The “bomb” turned out to be an auxiliary gas tank.  I suppose our pilots were instructed to salvage tanks by dropping them in friendly territory.  They might have told the flyers but they didn’t bother to tell us.

The other exception was “Bed-check Charlie,” an ancient North Korean biplane that flew over our lines at dusk.  The stories about Charlie were plentiful and somewhat romantic.  Some said he wore a leather helmet and dropped small bombs by hand from his open cockpit.  I had no personal experience with the flying relic, but recall hearing that the neighbouring 25th US Division had cancelled outdoor movies because of an attack.  In fact, there wasn’t just one Bed-check, but several of them using different, slow-flying, noisy airplanes.  They were so slow that our fast jets found it difficult to shoot them down.   Bed-check Charlie was a source of humour and war stories more than anything else.  Kim Jong-il, the heroic leader of North Korea and Supreme Commander of the fourth largest standing army in the world, is probably embarrassed if and when he hears about Charlie.

 


Posted by: Bob Ringma | August 24, 2011

Another Home

Another home for a while, was the back of a two and a half ton truck.   My furniture consisted of two folding chairs, a packing crate for a desk and a camp cot.  Just as my NCOs liked their privacy for entertaining, I could call the truck my one-man officer’s mess.  Knowing that I had the luxury of private quarters, the artillery assistant quartermaster, “Papa” Dionne, visited me one evening bearing two bottles of NAAFI champagne.  We popped the cork on one bottle and thought the wine quite pleasant, but without the kick of rye or gin.  I was feeling a bit of a buzz by the time we got through the second bottle – just enough to put me to sleep as soon as my friend had left.  Some time later, I was awakened by a thumping on the tailgate and Papa calling my name.  The champagne had obviously got to him too, because he had driven his jeep off the road and needed rescuing.  The incident could have been featured in Michael Green’s book, “The Art of Coarse Drinking.”

 

That particular encampment served as a Korean “storage in transit” site.   I learned one day that the Koreans had some sort of local government when a couple of fellows, one sporting an armband, came into our campsite.  They had a couple of shovels and gestured to me that they wanted to dig into an embankment that once might have been a dike around a rice paddy.  When I nodded OK, they dug away in a precise location until they uncovered an Ali Baba-like earthenware crock about three feet high.  I assumed that it contained a family’s treasures or a food supply and had been buried before enemy occupation.  Both men looked pleased at their find, and while I empathized with their satisfaction, my curiosity was not strong enough for me to ask to see its contents.  The fact that some civilians were gathering their belongings struck me as a hopeful sign that some peace was returning to that embattled land.  It affirmed my faith in the Koreans and in the United Nations cause.

Posted by: Bob Ringma | August 15, 2011

Home Sweet Home

 

 

The farther forward you are in the field, the more uncomfortable you are, especially in mobile operations.  The infantry get used to sleeping in trenches but given a few days in the same place, they create bunkers, which are improved day by day.  Field hospitals, such as MASHs, located in the Corps administrative areas could make themselves and their patients reasonably comfortable.  My circumstances with the MLBU were far better than the poor bloody infantry, but not necessarily lavish.  As the lone officer, I often bunked with my senior NCOs in a squad tent, which served as an office, living quarters and mess.  My sergeant major and the other NCOs tolerated me but valued their privacy when they could get it.

 

At one time, during the winter of 1951/52, I had an Arctic tent to myself.  It had a little kerosene-fueled stove, which kept me warm at night.  The tent was too small to use as an office, so I used it for sleeping only. at least I did until the night I was nearly asphyxiated.  On a cold morning, I came slowly awake sensing that there was something wrong.  Forcing my eyes open, I found the air filled with floating black specks, the result of improper kerosene combustion.  Everything in the tent was contaminated with oily soot.  I stood in the shower for a long time, trying to get clean, and coughed up black crap for a couple of days.  That was the end of my adventure in that little home away from home.

 

Hal Murphy, a Provost Corps lieutenant, and friend from Vancouver, lived across the Imjin River from me at one point.   Hal’s stove and tent were different from mine.  His problem occurred when he got a new batman who was instructed to start the day by turning up the stove in Murphy’s tent to heat shaving water in a basin.  During his first morning on the job, he filled the washbasin with water from a jerry can.  The trouble was, the “water” came from the kerosene can.  In addition, he also turned the stove up too high with the result that the tent roof caught fire.  He took the pan of water off the stove and threw it on the flames.  Not surprisingly a dandy fire ensued but fortunately no one lost their life, only their eyebrows.

 

Posted by: Bob Ringma | August 8, 2011

Beer ‘n Booze

  BEER ‘N BOOZE

Our men were only allowed beer, but it wasn’t in short supply.  The NAAFI ( British Navy,Army and Air Forces Institute) imported limitless quantities of Asahi and Kirin beer from Japan. It must have created a logistical problem for the troops in the front line, since it came in heavy, one-quart glass bottles, which would have to be packed up the endless Korean hills.  For logistical as well as disciplinary reasons, units necessarily regulated the amount of beer allowed to all ranks.

Tax-free Canadian beer could be purchased but was often donated, sometimes in large quantities, by generous brewers like Labatt’s and Molsons.  In recognition of the donation of 3,440 cases of Labatt’s ale, the engineers of 57 Field Squadron named one of their bridges “The John Labatt 50th Anniversary Bridge.”

Another source of alcohol for Canadians was SRD rum, a rationed commodity, issued occasionally in inclement weather when authorized by brigade HQ.  I remember that it came in one-gallon earthenware jugs.  Depending on which search engine source you believe (I use Google a lot), the abbreviation stands for Service Reserve Depot, Services Rum Diluted or Special Red Demerara.  Experienced Canucks said the SRD stood for, “Seldom Reaches Destination,” since the service troops behind the front lines managed to get their hands on it before the more deserving infantry.  I also recall that if a jug was not finished after a ration issue, the cork would be replaced and red sealing wax was melted over it to discourage pilfering.

It has been stated that SRD was introduced to cold, miserable, trench-bound infantry in World War I.  I like to think that the custom started centuries earlier when some grunts heard Royal Navy sailors bragging about their daily rum ration.  The soldiers didn’t want to be bested by the sailors, so they threatened mutiny until they too received a tot, albeit only in foul weather.

Posted by: Bob Ringma | August 3, 2011

Trading

TRADING

As soon as we were running the shower units on a regular basis, we found that the boilers were hard on electrodes. (Electrodes are like a spark plug in a gas engine – they ignite the fuel)  It would be weeks before we could get replacement parts using the Canadian supply system.  In fact, it might be much longer, because the bath trailers had been manufactured in the USA.  The answer was to scrounge the electrodes from the always-generous Americans.   I located a US Quartermaster unit that seemed to have a plentiful supply.  Typically, they didn’t hesitate to give me what was needed.  How could I repay them?  Knowing that there was  little or no liquor available in the US Army, on one of my visits I quietly left a couple of bottles of gin behind, in a bag on the floor.

 

Canadians were fortunate in that we had privileges with the Americans and with the British.  We were in the American pipeline for rations, which was a blessing because Brit rations, fresh or pack, were not up to the American standard.  On the other hand, we had access to the British Navy, Army and Airforce Institutes.  The NAAFI had a limitless supply of booze, which was just as well, since otherwise we Canadians would have exhausted their stocks.  Our access to the supply made us very popular with our allies.  Surreptitious sales to willing buyers made some of our officers and NCO’s a lot of money.  I doubt that the trade in alcohol was ever documented, since it wasn’t supposed to exist, but it was extensive.

 

A case of liquor, bought tax-free for twelve bucks, sold for a hundred dollars.  I bought an officers’ trench coat with winter liner, a pair of binoculars and an M1 carbine from the Americans for one bottle each.  The trench coat lasted me for years, and the rifle, which has “Molly Darling” carved in its stock, resides today in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.  I still have and use the 7 by 50 power, M15A1 binoculars, and hope that the statute of limitations for “possession” has run out.

 

In the Commonwealth forces, only officers and senior NCO’s were allowed to have liquor in their messes.  The men’s canteens served only beer.  This, of course, led some of our boys to try to obtain liquor by other means, with unpleasant consequences.  One day, I found the OFP cook unconscious on the kitchen floor.  The odour of banana oil permeated the room.  Near his outstretched hand was a bottle labeled “Two Lions Whiskey.”  It carried the prompt, “Please drink this whiskey.”  The cook had obliged but, fortunately, survived the experience.

 

"Danger" sign in Seoul

There was one other commodity that we thought might have some trading value – soap/detergent.  When we left North America for Korea we made sure that we had ample supplies of the stuff to keep the laundries running and perhaps a small quantity for trade.  My sergeant major remembered the value of soap to French women when he was with an MLBU in WWII, and he said to me, back in Fort Lewis, “You never know what we might get in exchange!”  (wink wink).

 

One day, soon after we arrived in Korea, he engaged a passing woman in pidgin English, “Hey Momma-san you dooey washy washy?”  He then pantomimed washing clothes in a tub.  The woman looked at him suspiciously, since it was obvious she didn’t know what he was talking about.  He then beckoned her closer and showed her a barrel of detergent.  She looked at the contents and her face lightened.  Thinking it was a sort of millet or grain, she took a handful and tasted it.  She quickly hawked it out, gave an extra spit at his feet and muttered the newly acquired expletive, “Numbah ten.”  (The jargon of the day in Korea was the use of numbers where number one was very good and number ten was bad.  Native Koreans picked this up from their liberators)

 

Later, as we watched women washing clothes by a stream, we realized that they never used soap. They pounded the fabric and flipped it over repeatedly, but never touched it with soap of any kind.  When the dirt had been walloped out, the clothes were spread out on bushes or on the bank to dry and bleach in the sun.  It must have been a slow, difficult process on cold winter days.

 

Posted by: Bob Ringma | July 26, 2011

The Field Ambulance

The RAPs and the Field Ambulance were also used to treat those who were ill.  A friend told me about his unique experience when he went to the Field Ambulance for help.  Returning from leave in Japan, he thought that he might have contracted a venereal disease but, worried about the rumour mill, he didn’t want to consult his own unit medical officer.  Instead, he went to the Field Ambulance.  Wandering casually into the officers’ mess, he sidled up to a doctor he knew and told him his problem.  “OK,” said the doc, “let’s go outside and take a leak.”  A few yards away from the mess tent, they stopped at a bush and opened their flies.  The doctor looked at my friend’s willy and said, “Relax, you didn’t catch anything.  Try getting a shower at the MLBU more often.”  If summary justice had a medical equivalent, that was it.

 

My own contact with 25 Field Ambulance was a little different.  I was driving past it one day at a very slow speed, maybe 5 mph, when a Korean  stepped right in front of me.  I simply could not avoid him, so down he went.  I stopped, of course, and was a little shaken to think that I had actually run down a human being.  The guy was moaning, but I managed to get him onto his feet and helped him limp in to the casualty admitting area.  He obviously had no broken bones but I was still worried.  A medical officer took one look at the fellow and told me to go on my way.  I offered to make out a report but he said it wasn’t necessary.  Life in the field may be rough at times but it can also be beautiful in its simplicity.

Posted by: Bob Ringma | July 18, 2011

M*A*S*H

Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals

 

Whenever I was near the location of the US Army’s 8055 Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, (it was in Uijongbu for a long time) I would drive past it at a snail’s pace, hoping to get a glimpse of its nurses. My slow speed meant that if I spotted one, I wouldn’t crash the jeep.  The nurses were dressed in olive drab but you could still imagine the pulchritude under the rough uniform and, because they were Americans, they were still very appealing to this young Canadian.

 

When the movie M*A*S*H came out in 1970 I went to see it, hoping to recapture some 1951 memories.  I nearly left the theatre after the first half hour’s viewing.  I had never before seen such a lot of nonsense.  My wife had to shush me, for I was exclaiming aloud about the crap I was seeing.  Years later, the TV series came out and I started to watch it.  I finally caught on that it was a spoof, a comedy series, not meant to be taken seriously.  (Well, that’s not entirely true, some of their episodes try to make a point)   I still watch and enjoy repeats of the program today, but never without making a mental note about incidents that are far from the reality of the 1950s in Korea.

 

For those who might take M*A*S*H seriously, here are a few of its many inaccuracies:

-       long hair on the doctors

-       Corporal Klinger as a woman – would never have been tolerated

-       Hawkeye’s still for producing alcohol (I doubt it very much)

-       Lousy mess tent food

-       Powdered eggs.  “We haven’t had fresh eggs for a year!”

-       A camera stolen at the MASH was reported to I Corps HQ  (much too small an incident to involve a corps HQ)

-       Frequent enemy shelling near the MASH

 

Only seriously wounded would end up at a MASH.  The way it usually happened for Canadian casualties is that they were given first aid while still in the line.  If they needed more treatment they were taken to the Regimental Aid Post (RAP) where the battalion medical officer was located.  If further care was needed, they were evacuated to 25 Canadian Field Ambulance.  If necessary, they were then sent to a MASH.  Since Canada liked to pay its way in all things, it assisted the MASHs by attaching Canadian field surgical teams to them.  If more care or convalescence was needed, the wounded were sent to a field hospital, the base hospital in Japan, or were repatriated to Canada.

Posted by: Bob Ringma | July 1, 2011

POW Postscript

  Back at the OFP, Capt. Fred Dunbar, proud of the MLBU’s action, arranged for the shipment of the Russian-made rifle to the Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps School in Montreal.  The RCOC Museum, which would come into existence at that location several years later, would become the home for the rifle, but in the meantime, it languished in the quartermaster stores of the School.  At one point, someone, probably wanting to steal the artifact, cut it in two so as to smuggle it past the security gate.  Later, it mysteriously reappeared in the QM stores, no doubt the result of a guilty conscience.  I think I know who the thief was.

Soviet rifle, bayonet folded

All of us in the MLBU had been teased about our vocation since we had started training back in Fort Lewis.  The razzing continued after the POW capture but with a different, sometimes envious, undertone.  Some stated that the Chinese had not been captured at all; hearing there was a laundry in the area, they had come in looking for a job.  Talking up the story, others created “Lobby Lingma’s secret weapon.”  When a button was pushed on the side of the laundry van, the sides would spring open revealing a crew of jabbering Chinese with washboards, tubs and with soap bubbles everywhere.   We had previously been dubbed the Chinese Dragoons; now the sobriquet stuck, but since it was applied with a sense of humour, we didn’t mind at all.  Where we had to tread carefully, though, was to not take the capture of our brigade’s first POWs too seriously; in other words, there was to be no bragging.  Although it was a first, and was deliberate, it wasn’t as if it were the result of an attack or defense against the enemy.  It was an accident of war precipitated by our forward position.

 

To my knowledge, the only other nationals running MLBUs in Korea were the Americans, Australians and the British.  When the Commonwealth Division was formed in 1951, there was some talk about our Canadian unit joining the Aussies and Brits.  I resisted this for a couple of reasons.  First, I would lose my command, something that I was enjoying.  Second, the service to Canadians would probably go downhill since the other laundries and baths were located farther to the rear.  Although it might have happened, I did not hear of any American or Commonwealth MLBUs picking up any prisoners during the war.

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