A 1952 Korean War Christmas Story
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A 1952 Korean War Christmas Story

by Charlie Nelson

I had arrived at Kimpo Air Force Base, Korea in early December l952 and was living in a tent, eating C rations, bathing out of a helmet, using an outside john, and freezing my butt off because the Air Force didn't have any cold weather gear. That wind blowing down from North Korea was truly as cold as a well digger's fanny in Alaska. We were being promised that on Christmas Day we would get a hot meal that included turkey, and everyone including myself was pretty excited about the prospect of that. The rumor was that some canned or frozen turkey was being flown in from Japan for the occasion.

Christmas Eve morning our squadron command post received a radio message that one of our remote homing beacons near the 38th Parallel that was used by our aircraft when flying missions North was down and they needed radio maintenance assistance. I was the most senior and experienced radio technician in the unit, and it was my job to respond to all such emergencies for all our remote sites in the Northern part of South Korea. I hated the thought of the long drive to the remote site in an open jeep and the cold, and most of all missing that hot Christmas meal.

My buddy, who was a power specialist, and I reluctantly grabbed our carbines, a box or two of C rations, some cartons of cigarettes, and a couple of bottles of Canadian Club Bourbon and hit the road. The CC and cigarettes were for recreational use plus trading material. In the Air Force we could get all the booze we wanted and plenty of cigarettes but few of the more practical necessities. On the other hand the Army had plenty of necessities, but little or no booze and cigarettes. So barter was the name of the game if one were to survive more comfortably.

The homing beacon site was typical of the many remote communication sites throughout Korea. A couple of mobile radio vans, gasoline generators, vehicles, and 12 to 15 guys sleeping in tents. The site was surrounded by a high fence with the tents and equipment protected by sand bags and there were plenty of fox holes. It was not uncommon for these sites to be bombed at night by civilian type aircraft from North Korea dropping mortar shells. These bad guys were called Bed Check Charlies because they usually came about bed time to keep one from sleeping as well as to do material damage. Guerrillas were also an every present danger, and the fence was also needed to keep locals from stealing supplies.

When I arrived on site, we immediately started working on the radio equipment. During the late afternoon, I noticed that a lot of Korean orphan kids were standing outside the fence begging for food. The guys didn't seem to be paying much attention, and were even sort of sheepish about the situation. GIs are usually so generous, I couldn't understand what was happening. After the equipment was restored and working properly, I finally I asked the NCO in charge, a very young sergeant, what was going on with the kids. He told me they were orphans living in caves up above the site and fending for themselves. He said they come every day begging for food, and we have given them everything we could spare plus more, and now we really don't have enough left for ourselves. I asked why don't you go to the Army supply point and get more rations. He told me they were only allowed to get supplies once a month at the Army supply depot, and it would be three days before they could get more.

So instead of celebrating Christmas Eve with those two precious bottle of CC, we took off for the supply point. We traded our two bottles of CC for a jeep load of rations and headed back to the site. On Christmas day the guys invited the kids in, and we heated up C rations and all had a Christmas feast of sorts with Spam, Lima beans, etc..  We had a communications receiver tuned into Armed Forces Radio playing Christmas tunes loudly and some of the guys were trying to teach the Korean kids to sing hymns with them. Every box of C rations had cookies and the guys gave those to the children for Christmas presents.

Christmas was a cold and snowy day, and as I looked around at all the fellows there that day, it dawned on me that I was the senior person in rank as well as the oldest person on the site. I had turned 22 three weeks before. We were all just a bunch of kids, Koreans and all. I would spend another Christmas in Korea in 1953, but the war was over then, and I finally got that hot Christmas meal with fresh turkey and stuffing, but it didn't measure up to the one with the orphans.