Outside, the fresh air was worse

Sunday, July 5th, 2020

After VJ-Day, American soldiers wanted to go home, and Americans wanted them to come home. This left Colonel Jones in Korea in an awkward situation, as T. R. Fehrenbach explains, in This Kind of War:

Colonel Jones received replacements, of course. He got officers from the Quartermaster Corps and the Infantry, and plenty of basic riflemen from the eighteen-year-olds just drafted, who didn’t have Skill One, even for basic riflemen. Engineers he didn’t get. Engineers, like most professional men, serve in the military only when the draft moves them.

With a Group HQ that didn’t know a crowbar from a wrecking iron, and who thought a balk was part of baseball, Colonel Jones, as part of “Blacklist Forty” (code name for Korea), reported to General Hodge in Korea.


These were days and weeks to break a career officer’s heart. The United States Army, which had been the most powerful in the world, did not melt away in an orderly fashion. It disintegrated into a disorganized mob, clamoring to go home.


Fortunately for Jones, the Jap soldiers in Korea waiting to be sent home were willing workers.


The Japs, now that the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere was gone, were affable, smiling, professional, and entirely helpful. Jones put them to work.


Eventually, though, all the Japs had to be repatriated. They took with them, when they left, every military officer, every professional man, every engineer, bank teller, and executive in the Pusan area. They left behind a hell of a mess.

Like most Americans, Colonel Jones was not prepared to take Chosun. The appalling poverty, the dust, dirt, filth, and eternal clamor of Pusan repelled any man accustomed to the West. Orphan children, with running sores, lay in the streets. Society, with the iron Japanese hand gone, was in dissolution. Money was worthless, since the Japanese had printed billions of yen prior to the surrender and passed it out to all who wanted it. Almost all responsible Koreans, particularly the educated were — rightly — tarred with the collaborationist brush.


He never got used to the stink. Inside the city, the odors were of decaying fish, woodsmoke, garbage, and unwashed humanity. Outside, the fresh air was worse. Koreans, like most Orientals, use human fertilizer. Their fields and paddies, their whole country smells somewhat like the bathroom of a fraternity house on Sunday morning.


Clothing washed in their rivers turns a sickly brown.


In Korea, there were no trained administrators for either government or business, regardless of their politics.


As an engineer, he became responsible for fire fighting in Pusan, and he noticed a great number of fires were breaking out. He asked a Korean fireman about this.

“Oh, it is the different factions, setting each other’s houses afire,” the Korean answered cheerfully.

He soon learned to use Korean guards for U.S. military stores. The Koreans were desperately poor, and would steal anything, even if nailed down — nails had commercial value — but American sentries would not willingly shoot down women and boys carrying off gas cans and water buckets. Not after they had killed two or three, anyway — they lost all heart for it. But Korean guards would shoot or beat hell out of the thieves, if they caught them.


The summers were hot and dusty, or hot and rainy, with hundred-degree temperatures. The winters were Siberian. The country literally stank, except for the few months during which the ground stayed frozen.


  1. Ezra says:

    Fifty percent of the first contingent of U.S. Marine reservists sent to Korea had not even undergone basic training. The Army was not alone in being unprepared.

  2. Harry Jones says:

    Wasn’t there a gap of several years between the end of WW2 and the start of the Korean War? Why could the US military not regroup in that time frame?

  3. Isegoria says:

    His point is that the US military took that time to do just the opposite. It softened discipline, reduced troops levels, lost interest in small arms, etc. It did spin up an independent Air Force though.

  4. Kirk says:


    Got a citation for that? Other than rumor, that is?

    None of the sources I’ve ever read have said anything like that, at all–US Army reservists? Yes, absolutely–Seen the documentation, heard the first-hand stories. Marines? Oh, hell no–They were noted for this not being a “thing”. Lots of Marine reservists were sent over without actual MOS skill training, but I’ve never heard that any were sent over having bypassed boot camp for the Corps. At least one WWII Army vet I met had to go through Marine boot camp before he was allowed to go to Korea, and he’d finished WWII as an Army NCO. So… I would very much like to see some evidence for what you’re saying.

    Harry Jones,

    You need to read the book. Fehrenbach does an outstanding job of outlining everything that the Army/DOD did wrong during that short period of demobilization. Doolittle Board effects, logistics, weapons, all of it. There’s a lot more depth to be had, but you have to go to a dozen or more sources to find all the pieces. The bibliography in This Kind of War is invaluable.

    Big problem with it all is that the US military does not like to self-examine or self-criticize. Things they do wrong are usually glossed over, and ascribed to “Shit happens…”. Look at the utter lack of anyone really doing anything about the WWII torpedo issues, or anyone actually examining things like “Why the hell didn’t we have MRAPs before we were years into Iraq and Afghanistan, and why was none of our equipment prepared for the IED war?”. The rare occasions when the errors get examined are actually seriously anomalous. Cases like the Ichord Committee looking into the M16 issues in Vietnam are damn rare, and ever rarer when they actually accomplish anything.

    The US military is anything but a “learning organization”.

  5. Kirk says:


    There’s nothing in that document to support Ezra’s assertion. If you read page 13, it pretty much demolishes the idea of any such thing, as it outlines the facts, which were that recruits were sent to the recruit training depots if they had not undergone Basic.

    Army? Yeah, maybe some of the reserve units activated with as-yet untrained junior enlisted took them with, but it was neither policy nor official intent. The claims that some guys showed up in Korea without having attended Basic training are ones I’d take with a grain of salt. Even the hastily mobilized Reserve and National Guard units worked hard to ensure that the guys they mobilized were at least somewhat trained, although they didn’t always succeed. I’ve met a couple of guys who said they went to Korea after enlisting in the Guard or Reserve, and then didn’t get a chance to do the full course of initial entry training required, but they’re damn few, and I’m not sure how reliable their stories were.

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