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Roadway Hazards

by Charles Heusel

When I arrived in Korea, I received orders directing me to the 4th Maintenance Battalion at Camp Red Cloud in Uijongbu, a town between Seoul and the DMZ. From there I was assigned to C Company at Camp Page, where my first job was serving as the unit’s Soladium officer.

The Eighth Army established the Soladium program to fairly recompense Korean civilians who sustained injury or property damage caused by the US military. Someone in the Army hierarchy had analyzed the problem and placed limits on the amount that a claimant could expect as compensation. For example, in cases involving an accident resulting in the death of a cow, a farmer couldn’t factor into his claim estimated losses for any calves that might have been born or quantities of milk production lost. Also, if a Korean police investigation followed, US Army personnel were not obligated to make any statements to the authorities. This condition was agreed to by both the South Korean and American governments under the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). One of the Soladium officer’s responsibilities was to ensure that the GI’s rights were protected and the terms of the treaty were followed to the letter of the law.

My first case involved a driver named Donaldson who was about nineteen or twenty. He didn’t actually cause the accident while he was driving his truck on a street in Seoul. A young boy—maybe nine years old – came charging into the street, not looking where he was running, and collided with the side door of Donaldson’s 5/4-ton truck as it was passing. The boy was knocked unconscious by the collision. A big commotion ensued, the boy was taken to a nearby hospital and our driver was left standing alone by his vehicle in the street, badly shaken.

The accident occurred before I was even in country so I had to piece together everything after the fact. I was informed that the Soladium award had already been set at 1,200 Won, or about $40 American dollars at that time. Inexperienced in such matters, I recall commenting that the sum seemed a little low. I was reminded to consider the circumstances: the kid had run into the truck and not the other way around. More importantly, he had since recovered, been released from the hospital and sent home.

Along with Donaldson and one of our C Company’s “Katusas” – a Republic of Korea soldier imbedded with U.S. forces – I drove down to Seoul to visit the boy’s family. Our first stop was the local civilian police station as a courtesy. The Korean detective we met at the station was courteous enough but almost immediately began attempting to elicit a statement from Donaldson. I interrupted, insisting that under the SOFA agreement, any such statement was impossible. Obviously frustrated, he persisted in trying to obtain the driver’s version of the story. The poor man was just trying to do his job but that was simply not going to happen.

Upon leaving the station, we proceeded to the address of the kid’s family.

The family’s residence was in the middle of a maze of streets. Off every avenue and back alley were clustered typical one-story houses. In each house were many rooms, most rented by the owners to other tenants resulting in many occupants living under one roof. Alongside the houses were drainage ditches where you could spot an occasional mouse or rat dashing for cover.

Each residence had its own common kitchen used in turn by all the families. In addition to sharing the single kitchen, everyone used the same communal outhouse. Underground flues connected to a central charcoal burner heated the floors of every room in the house when the weather got cold.

Despite the cluttered appearance of the neighborhood outside the home, Koreans kept the actual rooms in their homes immaculate. Floors were either covered with scrubbed linoleum or, if wood, maintained in a highly polished condition. Any footwear worn outside the house was removed before entering and left on the outer doorstep. We all removed our boots before entering the main room as guests. The boy’s family was not very well off. Newspapers were glued over the holes in the paper lining walls to keep out the cold. The Katusa who had come with us introduced our group to the parents and explained the reason for our visit.

We asked them how the boy was coming along and they replied that he was well, considering. They appeared grateful for the Soladium lump sum payment we brought.

Ironically, a similar incident occurred a few months later to me and Sergeant Doug Anders as we were driving south to Camp Red Cloud on company business.

Uijongbu was a heavily trafficked town. At one extremely congested point on the highway, a dirt road branched off and ran parallel to the main thoroughfare, bypassing places where some of the larger traffic jams occurred. Unfortunately, as a result of this road’s popularity, there had occurred a number of accidents involving local civilians. Considered by Battalion to be a high-risk area, headquarters had made that part of the route off limits to our drivers. However, because we were in a hurry that morning, I – a 25-year-old first lieutenant – made a very bad decision. I directed Anders, my 22-year-old driver, to take the road anyway, cautioning him to be careful.

The road was bordered on both sides by a high dirt berm. The course itself consisted of pebbles and loose layers of soil. As Anders and I drove slowly down the road, a kid about ten years old suddenly appeared at the top of the berm to our left and scrambled down the incline, finally sliding on the pebbled road directly in front of our vehicle. Anders saw the kid and slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting him. The jeep slowed down and stopped, but not before inertia sent us sliding into the kid, knocking him over. Anders folded his arms on the steering wheel and despairingly buried his head in them. Besides feeling terrible about hitting the boy, our immediate futures seemed suddenly in jeopardy. It might result in extending our tours in Korea until the matter was fully investigated and settled.

Fortunately, the boy jumped up and began flexing his arm.

Turning my attention next to Anders, who was understandably pretty shaken, I tried to reassure him that I was the responsible person in charge. It was I who directed him to take that road, adding that it looked as if the boy hadn’t been seriously hurt.

Our next stop was to battalion headquarters in Red Cloud where I placed a call to Dave Lewis, C Company Commander, explaining what had occurred. I made my report about the accident to our battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Sales. He also called Dave just to ensure that everyone was on the same page about what had happened. The Colonel worried that this could be a potentially big Soladium case if not properly controlled. He arranged for us to have a Katusa MP from battalion accompany us while we paid a visit to the kid’s home for more information. Back tracking from the scene of the accident, the MP soon learned the name and address of the family and the location of the farmhouse where they lived.

Arriving at the house, it was a relief to see the boy playing in his front yard. We approached two men who appeared to be the kid’s father and grandfather. We expressed our regrets for the accident and the child’s injury. I was amazed when they assured us that there was no injury and the kid was fine – case closed. This was an incredible outcome and personally restored my faith in people again. This family could have easily have exploited the accident for personal gain. We parted amicably and drove back to Red Cloud, two very relieved Americans.

In spring of the late 1960s, there was much more farmland than exists today in Korea. Proceeding south on the MSR (Main Supply Route) from Chunchon to Seoul between the months of April and June, I would pass many small plots of land where a great variety of vegetables were growing. I passed acres of flooded paddies, with tiny green shoots sprouting through the water’s surface, evidence of recently planted rice. The pungent aroma of night soil used by the farmers to fertilize their fields permeated the Korean country air. This abundant resource was collected every morning from the household outhouses of town residents by hardy, enterprising commercial gatherers. These intrepid entrepreneurs hauled away their odiferous product, using small trucks and carts (“honey wagons”), then turned around and sold it to the farmers to use as manure. This process continued an unbroken cycle that insured meeting the public demand for food: plant the seedlings, fertilize, tend to and finally, harvest the crop. This last was accomplished by first cutting, then threshing the stalks and finally marketing the finished grain product. Consumed by the public, this process defined a seemingly endless life cycle.

Without a doubt, of all the seasons, autumn is an especially wonderful time of year in Korea. The heat and humidity of the spring and summer months have been replaced by crisp, clear air. The rice, grown tall and green and then transformed into stalks of gold, waving gracefully in the cool breezes, ready to be harvested from the terraced rice fields built into the valleys and mountainsides. Gone was the pervasive odor of fertilizer.  Everywhere the air was fresh; the trees glorious with their leaves ablaze in shades of red, orange and gold.  It was the time of Chuseok, the Korean harvest festival, their equivalent to our Thanksgiving.

Along the MSR, clusters of beautiful blue, violet and red colored flowers sprayed out at us as we drove along the road.

Though the drive along the MSR was beautiful, it could also be deadly. When rounding a narrow, winding curve on a mountain road hundreds of feet up a precipice, we always had to be prepared for what might be coming at us head-on from the other direction. On more than one occasion, we were faced with a vehicle barreling down upon us from the opposite direction on the same side of the MSR on which we were traveling. We had to make determined efforts to avoid a crash. It might have been a Korean army truck or some civilian taxicab. The drivers of the latter were especially well known for taking outrageous risks, competing with one another to get passengers to their destination at breakneck speed.

The roads were built into mountainsides with cliffs rising hundreds of feet on one side then dropping to a similar depth on the other. We could easily imagine the horrendous consequences of colliding with another vehicle under those circumstances, being sent over the side at those heights. It actually happened earlier that year. A 21-year-old member of Camp Page’s Criminal Investigation Division lost control of his speeding vehicle on a mountain road, careened off the cliff and down into a rice paddy several hundred feet below. The result was pretty gruesome, with the driver’s brains left splattered all over the windshield. We knew all about it because the jeep was subsequently dragged into C Company’s shop office for inspection and evaluation. We classified it as unsalvageable – wrecked and not worth the time or money to repair. The quarter-ton vehicle became an addition to C Company’s Tech Supply cannibalization point, the remains of which were to be used as spare parts by our shop when we couldn’t obtain them through regular repair parts supply channels.

The post commander unexpectedly ordered the jeep remains pulled from our cannibalization yard and towed to Camp Page’s front gate where it remained for a week. He further directed that the driver’s brains remain on the windshield for all to view. I’m not sure how many accidents the grisly display might have actually prevented but it delivered a powerfully graphic message nonetheless.