combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 03 Number 02 Spring ©Apr 2005

The Pied Hills of Taejon


          I got your letter last week, but we've been on the move and just stopped here in Taejon two days ago. I thought maybe you were up to some of your old tricks, teasing your big brother again, but then I thought, what the hell? What if she's serious? I mean, join the Army?!! Oh! My God!! Yeah, I know, you're all grown up now – an eighteen year old woman (I almost said girl). So what? I'm five years older and I still do stupid stuff – and don't ask what, or I might tell you.

          But, "What's it like?" I guess you mean the Army. It's like any other job – a pain in the ass most of the time, and once in a while, a joy to behold, whatever that means. Right now I'll go ahead and tell you what it's like here, in this rat-hole, Korea.

          First thing, when we got to this town, we took over the local courthouse for our headquarters on one of the main streets, not paved, stones and dirt. We'd just got everything off the trucks when we heard the rumor – there're always rumors in the Army, gossip and junk. But here it was a different kind of rumor. Across the road from us is a compound (a bunch of buildings) with a high wall around it, and it's where the U.S. Army had it's Military Advisors Group before the Commies came through. Anyhow, we heard that the North Korean bastards captured three guys from the 24th Infantry Division, and when they knew we were on the way, they buried the three of them alive. That's what some of the locals told our intelligence guys, the CIC. Well that kind of stuff happens a lot in a war, but knowing that don't make any of us feel any better about it. I was kind of sick, and you should of heard Father Connelly cut loose. For a chaplain, he sure can cuss almost as good as you and me when we were kids. Remember the dirty rotten bastards up the street?

          Well, we got this guy, Cheery Chavez, he's a captain and a F.O., a forward observer for the artillery, and he flies a light plane over the front to see where the enemy is and what they're doing. He gets shot at a lot. I got a picture of him pointing at a bunch of holes in his plane. He's smiling and saying "Look what I got!" What a nut! But we all like him. He was really shook about that rumor. I saw him rubbing that little mustache of his like he does when he's worried, when we were talking about it.

          But then later that day we heard he got his accordion. It was flown in by some buddy of his in the Air Force. Anyhow, we're in the enlisted mess hall, a big room behind this building that used to be a courthouse, eating supper, when Captain Chavez comes in with his accordion, sits on a stool in the corner and starts to play for us. That's the kind of guy he is. We loved it. He played "Nola", "Home on the Range", "Carolina Moon", and we sang some of the songs. Then Buck Downey asked him to play "Rodger Young". It's a song about a guy in the infantry that gets killed. We sang it twice, and I learned the words. Some of the guys almost cried and got up and left. Cheery Chavez said he better go play in the Officer's Mess or the General would be pissed. So he went.

          After supper I was asked to help some British soldiers, three of them, to get settled in. They were really characters. I couldn't understand the Cockney guy, but the Aussie was okay. They came with the British commanding officer, a brigadier; one was his bodyguard, one was his driver, and the Cockney was his batman, don't you know? It's what we call an orderly, a guy who does stuff, a kind of go-fer, for the big brass. I got them a bunch of American cigarettes, which they said they really liked, from the guys in my outfit.

          Then I went up to the courtroom on the second floor, way over to the corner of the room, where my sleeping bag is. I leaned my carbine against the wall, put my boots near my head where I could get at them, and got into the sleeping bag cover. It's too warm to use the wool bag, yet. I lay there and thought about how I felt, and somehow I felt happy. I mean it was a kind of peaceful happy, not joyful. I don't think I'll ever feel any kind of real joy again 'til I'm home with you and Mom and Dad. But it was just that if things have to be bad for a time in my life, in our lives, right then they weren't nearly as bad as they could've been. I thought about you and was glad that you care about me so much. You're a good sister, and I'm sorry for the times I teased you so badly, but that's what you get for being my sister.

          But the next day was very different, Teresa. After breakfast we found out that some of the guys at IX (ninth) Corps headquarters had been killed in an attack by North Korean stragglers. Pug had already called over there to find out if Slick was all right. He was. I couldn't find Father Connelly anywhere. Finally someone told me he had gone up to 1st Cavalry. to see his friend. I didn't have anything to do til he got back, so when Pug asked me if I wanted to go up to the Chapel to see the massacre that happened just before we got here, I said okay.

          "What about the guys across the street?" I asked Pug. I meant the guys that we heard had been buried alive.

          "Graves Registration is going to dis-inter the bodies today," he said. "You can see the mounds in the courtyard, where they buried them. You want to go?"

          I told him, No. The Graves Registration guys belong to a small quartermaster team and a lot of times they billet with us. It's a real rough-ass job. They're the ones that carry the truckloads of empty body bags up to the front, and bring the full ones back. And you can smell them. I mean sometimes these guys have an odor, you know? Connelly says its the formaldehyde that makes them stink. I don't know. I think it's death.

          "Well," Pug said, "you want to go up to the Presbyterian Chapel or not?"

          "Okay," I said, "I got nothing else to do right now."

          So a bunch of us went. Me and Pug, and Rick Fletcher and J.J. and Tom Slater. We all walked up the small hills behind the court-house compound, and when we got near the top we saw it. There was a little tiny church on one hilltop off to our left. It was smaller than any Army chapel I've ever seen. Then off to the right, over all the little hills, there they were. Dozens and dozens, even hundreds, of dead bodies. All civilians, all men. All of them with their hands tied behind their back, most of them still kneeling. The hills were splotched with these bodies in different colored clothes, a few feet apart, looking like someone had strewn strange flowers on the hillsides – white and black and green and brown and blue – pied hills of Taejon.

          You know what Pug said, of course. "Jesus." He says that a lot, and I think he meant it that time. I crossed myself and said a Hail Mary – I couldn't help it. I felt like Ma, doing that like what she does, but I had to do something. Rick kind of snapped us out of it when he said "Let's go in." We went into the chapel, and what a mess. Up at the altar the only thing I can remember is that they had smashed the Crucifix down onto the floor. Before Tom went forward to pick it up, I took a couple of pictures. The place was a mess. Rick said that they had rounded up every man of military age and kept them in there for two days before they took them out to execute them. They did that when they heard that we were just outside the city. Our artillery had completely flattened the downtown section of Taejon – except the city hall, and the gooks knew we were on the way.

          It looked like there had been a few struggles in the chapel. But what good is it to struggle when the other guys have all the guns?

          We went out onto the hills and began to walk around. On the hills the small groups of bodies were beginning to rot, some were still on their knees, slumped forward, hands tied behind, all of them turning black, and each one had one or two big holes in the back of his head. There were ten of these in one group on a small hillside, and I took a picture of them. Near the top was a group of about twenty bodies all scattered around, all in different poses, stiff, dead, turning black like the others, and in front of them there was a small-caliber machinegun, abandoned. The bastard cowards had run at the last minute, just taking time to kill helpless people, and left the damned gun, even the ammo belt was still there, and they ran leaving the bodies. All of them had their hands tied behind their backs. Hemp rope or something like it.

          Up ahead of us, near the top of a bigger hill, a big bulldozer was digging a trench. It had already dug a trench below, about a hundred feet long, eight feet wide and six feet deep, of course. It was about half full of corpses. Twenty old papa-sans, too old to have been invited to the massacre, were gathering up the bodies from the hillsides, and were carrying them to the mass grave. They were all lean and wiry and strong old men, like the kind we see along the roads with their A-frames, carrying hundreds and hundreds of pounds. They wore gauze masks over their faces, like you see here a lot of times, and they were carrying the woven reed flat bags that I think are used to transport rice. They would put the reed bag on the ground next to a body, and then roll it carefully, gently onto the bag. Then two of them would use the bag as a litter and carry the body to the mass grave.

          There were at least ten mama-sans wandering over the hills. Most of them held a cloth of some kind to their faces. The smell was getting worse as the sun rose higher. They were all weeping and moaning. It was the only sound when the bulldozer wasn't running. It was the saddest sound I've ever heard, and then one of them would scream and point. The first one we saw do that was standing on the edge of the trench, and nearly fell in. She pointed and wailed and moaned until two of the papa-sans talked to her. They went down into the trench of bodies and retrieved the one she was pointing at. I couldn't watch. It was so God-damned painful. I don't mean goddam, I mean God-damned! Teresa, if God does damn anything at all that we do, for sure He damns the human filth of war. That's why some parts of the Bible just confuse me, and maybe now you'll know why I think women who want to fight in a war are stupid. We sure as hell don't feel like we're defending our country over here.

          "I'm ready to go," Rick said. Pug and Tom had already started back.

          "Me too," I said. "Let me get a few more pictures."

          By then I was so numb inside to what I was seeing, it was a little easier for me to take pictures. I snapped up the second roll in a few minutes, moving in and out between the bodies. At the last shot, just as we got to the edge of the massacre, I walked around a kneeling corpse and saw his face. The head was turned sideways, and the face was frozen forever, soon to be dropped into a trench with a hundred others, to be covered with dirt and forgotten. It was a strange look on the face, Teresa, a mixture of pain and fear and horror and disgust. The thought came into my head: he shouldn't have been killed! Can you imagine? Why just him? But it was the look that did it, I suppose. I got the picture just as the wind shifted, and the stink was unbearable. Rick and I ran down to the road and then walked along back to our compound. We didn't talk.

          Later that day I was coming back from the Motor Pool and I saw Captain Chavez sitting on the front steps of the courthouse, smoking a cigarette. He looked like something was wrong, and when I got close, I could see that he was quietly crying.

          "What's wrong?" I asked.

          "Oh, the bastards," he said. "They did. They buried them alive. They just found out." He wiped his eyes. "They were just kids. My God, just kids." Chavez has two sons and a daughter, about your age. I don't think he'll want her to enlist.

          In case you're wondering about the pictures, the rats got into my duffel bag that night and ate through both rolls, right down to the metal spool. I didn't want pictures of those buried-alive graves, and now I don't have any of the corpses of the hills.

          By now you know some answers to your questions. I hope it didn't hurt too bad for me to share this with you. Thanks for listening to me, little sister. Whatever you do, don't let Mom read this. And it's probably better if Dad doesn't read it, too. Take care of yourself till I get home, and give my love to everybody. I miss them all very much. And remember, I won't tell on you, if you don't tell on me. I love you,


by Larry Fred Moore
... who is a former soldier and farmer, now a retired technical instructor at Midlands Technical College in Columbia, SC. He now writes freelance when time permits.