Dr Jee Man Won
Dr. Jee Man Won is a Military Academy Graduate in Korea who had obtained his Doctorate in System Engineering at one of the leading universities in the United States of America. He is a Korean Vietnam Veteran having served with the White Horse Division as a platoon leader and an artillery commander in mid 1960s
A PLATOON LEADER’S LAST FATE
2nd Lieutenant Jee, Man Won (center) who was then a platoon leader in the White Horse Division. He is directing an instruction to his platoon guards while participating in an operation in VietnamIt was on an afternoon in June with unbearable heat that made us totally soaked with sweat that a group of choppers arrived in row and took all soldiers my company and unloaded us at an unknown and strange village.
There was a plain like the one in Kimjae in Cholla province, Korea that comprises of broad rice paddies where we found greenish rice plants growing as high our knee and in rice paddies inundated with water.
There were several tiny villages scattered here and there. From the villages situated in the bushes, an invisible power as sharp as a canine’s tooth seemed to be emanating.
Thus, we felt a kind of fear from those villages as we crouched in the bush. Compounding that unpleasant feeling, right that moment, a squadron of the fighter aircraft began to severely smash these tiny villages beyond the rice paddies. Four of them were heavily striking as powerfully as a nose-diving eagle. Full of earth dusts, wooden debris was mushrooming upward and flying over the surrounding palm trees, covering the entire village with smoke.
“Bang, bang, bang… ” We heard shooting.
The nose-diving bombers were vertically rising upward and repeated their attack pattern. It was a kind of scenic spectacle when seen from our distant position, and even made us think that people might say war could be one of the arts.
Artillery shelling followed immediately after the strike aircraft attack. Though sounds being emitted from the fighters were rather something soft but dull, the sound of the artillery rounds exploding was that of a sharp clash, similar to a fairly big piece of glass smashing into pieces.
We were able to observe that villagers in black clothes were hurrying back and forth quickly as if they were flying between the villages.
Each of the 4 platoons was given a mission to take care a village that we had categorized as a strategic. Compact and tough thorny plants encircled the area and we could see many bullet tracks made in the tightly woven village fences. Company Headquarters together with the 4th platoon mounted in the armored carrier, advanced into the village.
While moving forward one by one, we also all had to concentrate our attention on the village located behind us. The machine gun mounted on the armored carrier, at last, began to shoot randomly upon the village in the rear area.
Many bullets had been fired at us from the village in the rear and the greater the gunner’s fear, the louder and heavier became the sound of the firing. A bullet that left a short sound of “bang” was the one directly coming at us, but one with an echoed “bang” sound meant the bullet was flying in different direction.
The bullet of an M-16 rifle flies at Mach 2.8, which is faster than that of the speed of sound. As the thread comes with the needle, so the sound of a bullet leaving the barrel will follow a second later. That is why a man shot often became unconscious without hearing the sound of a “bang”.
Without having serious injuries on our part we were able to occupy the village that was found, at that time, to be entirely vacant.
Just as I was about to disembark from the armored carrier, I heard a sobbing voice of the radioman of the 2nd platoon echo through the field radio handset. It was a report that shocked me – his platoon leader was dead.
According to his report, the platoon leader was shot in his head by the Vietcong’s indiscriminate firing while he was disembarking from the armored carrier, right after the arrival at the neighboring village.
Everybody was immediately frozen on the spot where we stood at this unexpected news. However, situation did no longer allow us to mourn his death. The company commander immediately ordered the deputy company commander to replace the 2nd platoon leader’s duties.
Usually the company deputy commander was taking care of the supply distribution jobs at the Headquarters, including packing the foodstuffs and mail delivery works and etc.
The Company commander’s order to the deputy commander, who used to idle with sundry works, was a quite surprising thing to him. A special chopper was dispatched for his urgent replacement.
At last, with no exception, he also came into the awful village riding in the armored carrier. On the way to the village he encountered with heavy firing from the hidden enemy. The face of the Company’s Deputy Commander, who had just got out of the armored carrier, was unbelievably pale. He was senior to me just by a year and had very calm and gentle personal character and was always optimistic. Whenever he saw me, he was always smiling, but on that day he was totally different, and rather seemed as entirely absent-minded person.
This scene became his most vulnerable point after that time. In later days, whenever he came across with me in such atmosphere as something uncomfortable, I used to depress his loud voice using his weak point as mentioned above, teasing him by saying, “I have never seen such a face so horribly pale in my life”.
Mosquitoes in these villages that were surrounded by bushes were something frantic. Their stings were strong enough to penetrate our tightly woven fatigues. With a single palm spanking you could catch tens of mosquitoes.
Even the strong insecticide spraying was useless. The best way to prevent from these awful insects was to cover your body wholly with a poncho and make sure your hands were in gloves.
At night, the defense positions had to be carefully chosen. The 4th platoon leader, who had particular close relationship with the dead platoon leader, could barely perform his duties because of the deep sadness he could hardly control.
So. I replaced his job by settling proper situation of the guard posts for the soldiers, and let them know the instructions correctly and in detail. When finished I was unbearably sleepy.
The enemy already knew our location exactly. Nobody knew when they were going to launch a surprise attack, and although we were worried by the thought, we could barely resist heavy drowsiness.
A new comer to the battle field, the deputy company commander made remarkable achievements during that night by capturing 3 Regular North Vietnam Army soldiers who were infiltrating by stealthily crawling between the rice paddies. 3 brand new rifles and a big ammunition cartridge were added to the seized weapon listing.
Next day, soldiers were ordered to thoroughly investigate the earth surface around the village with sharpened bamboo sticks in an effort to find any underground trenches. We all had thought there must have been some hideouts under the ground.
But everything was in vain, and we had believed that no underground hideouts could be found by such a simple sticking method. Though it was only for 3 days, we indeed experienced a detestable operation. We became totally listless – both spiritually and physically.
Our fatigues were all covered with sticky and muddy dirt. Just beside the dead bodies lying on the ground in array, soldiers were gratifying their hunger with the C-rations while waiting for helicopters to pick us up,
We had finally come back to the base camp and I found the bunker next to me was vacant. It was then that I realized, almost for the first time, that the platoon leader met his last fate.
The dead platoon leader had been rewarded several months ago with a special leave to fly back home as a result of some brilliant achievements in an operation. From that time he started to associate with some female high school students as a pen pal partner.
Strangely, even though we finished eating dinner, the sun was still in the sky. No sooner had the dead platoon leader stepped in the dinning hall, than he used to read the pen letters received from the students.
According to his gestures while reading the letters, we could see a significant reason that a lot of young girl students back home might dream of this fresh, young, and promising army officer who was at war in Vietnam.
A bunch of pen letters was stacked at the head of his bunker. He was always rolling in his bunker when reading the letters. Whenever he was in good mood, he used to sing his favorite song – “The Windmill of no Turning” – sung by a female singer, Moon Ju Ran. He wasn’t a good at singer but had very good emotion and sense of tune. He would sing and pretend, and hold his arms upward as if he were a preacher who was about to finish preaching in the church.
Now, all of us had suddenly become unable to see him singing no longer. Only the pen letters without addressee were stacked at the head of his bunker in silence.
In the company, he used his spare his time in bringing up a lovely little yellow colored puppy by keeping him under his bunker. From the first day the puppy knew that his master was no longer around, he refused to eat at all despite soldiers’ repeated attempts to feed him.
Every night the poor puppy made a mournful sound something that made all the soldiers very sad. One day, we found that the puppy was lying dead in the sand beyond the company tents.
The death of the little doggie took all the remaining sorrowful memories of the dead platoon leader from us all in the company.
Fortunately, I was also maintaining pen pal relation with some of young girls back home. The girl with whom I was most impressed was a lady residing in Chochiwon in Korea.
She had very neat handwriting and had an excellent talent for letter writing. Though we had exchanged tens of letters at that time, we didn’t reveal our private lives to each other, but discussed common life subjects only.
An artillery captain started paying particular attention to the girl with whom I was exchanging letters. Eventually, every single day he pestered me.
“Hey you, 2nd Lieutenant Jee, I know you have a lot of pen pal partners. You’d better let me have one.” said the Captain.
At last I had to make concession as he wanted. Unfortunately, from then neither of us received a letter from her. Nevertheless, one day a last letter was received from the lady.
She said in the last letter
“No matter who would be, people are urged to learn more and more.”
Like her humble attitude that had deeply planted a neat atmosphere to me, the after-effect left by her last letter was truly unforgettable.
©Copyright by Dr. Jee Man Won
Translated by: Jae-sung Chung