TAPS IN THE AFTERNOON

By Published on .

Most Popular
First things first: The new Korean War memorial in Washington is magnificent. Especially the 19 larger-than-life steel sculptured infantrymen, wary and weary, slogging up a Korean hill.

Once in a while people get it right. Even artists. Three of the 19 figures are Marines. All three have their helmet straps firmly secured. Marines appreciate small distinctions. We're old-maidish about such things. But I get ahead of myself. Let me tell you what it was like there in D.C. when a couple hundred thousand aging Americans arrived in town to be saluted by a president, and other great men, and to remind a nation there was once a nasty war that wasn't Vietnam.

Midsummer. And of course Washington was going to be hot. But the Metroliner down from New York was cool and swift. And the capital looked as it always does in summer, drowsy and smalltown-y, rubbing sleep from its eyes.

But this wasn't just another summer. This was a trip back into yesterday.

I'm not a joiner or much for reunions and didn't really know what to expect there in Washington when they dedicated the memorial to those of us who fought in the Korean War. A photo op? A funeral? A fraternity beer bust? The old soldiers' home?

I was staying in the Ritz-Carlton on Mass. Ave. along Embassy Row and Captain Chafee came by with a car to take us both out to northern Virginia where memory would begin. He is a senator now but to the Marines of Dog Company he will always be "the Captain."

These were the hard men of a rifle company of the 7th Marines who have a little association that gets together every year and now they were again gathered to see this memorial that was going up, see how they liked it. I didn't know how many of these men I would know. Nor did Chafee. A Marine rifle company in combat rotates itself every couple of months. Natural selection (see Darwin). Men come in, they fight, they are hit, they die, they're evacuated or rotated back to the States. New young men arrive. Fresh meat. And they are hit and die or survive in their turn to be promoted or transferred or rotated home. In the Marine Corps and in all armies, it is the rifle companies that fight. Everything else is rear echelon. Only the men of rifle companies kill men they can actually see. Dog Company was like all rifle companies that ever were. Ney and Wellington would have recognized us; Grant and Lee; Foch and Haig.

The Dog Co. reunion was in a Stouffer's hotel.

There were men without arms and men who limped and men who lacked a leg or used canes, weathered men. A few of us had gone to fat but some were startlingly young and fit. There were plenty of wives and a few grown children. And you said hello and told people your name and they told you who they were: a machine gunner, a priest, a mortarman, a squad leader, a man who later made light colonel.

These were the men who stopped Communism in a cold and terrible place 40 years and 10,000 miles ago, and who now in a Virginia hotel mustered once again. There was more laughter than I'd anticipated. More love, too.

No. I'd expected love. Even among men whose names and faces I couldn't quite place. Nor they, mine.

Stoneking was dead, someone told me. My platoon sergeant. A hard, unkillable man, who as a kid ran booze in the dry counties of Oklahoma. A regular who took a dim view of amateur lieutenants like me. Whitey Hietela came up. I remembered him. Then Porterfield, a sergeant and now in Sacramento a workers' compensation judge, toward whom I'd been stuffy, officious. He forgave me and he and I embraced. Stew McCarty was there and Crotts and Christiansen and Dennis Burk who'd known Wild Horse Callan who was long dead and Colonel Wimpee and Kim the interpreter, now a Ph.D. in America.

Thursday morning I skipped the service at Arlington and went downtown to the Mall, to the green and decent place where they'd put up this tardy commemoration. Out there across the field was a tent and a "Hunger Strike" sign. At the Black Wall of Vietnam tourists were taking pictures.

I talked my way through a gate to where they issued my press pass and gave me a plastic bag for water bottles. You'll need them today, they told me.

About 9:25 two fighters came in low over the lawn. And then a chopper. TV crews and print reporters wandered about looking for someone to interview. I ran into men I knew, including "Seabags" Seabury. Some men in wheelchairs look like they're selling pencils; others ride their chairs like Harleys, real irons. "Seabags" was like that. An Army guy came up. "Oh, was the Army there, too?" A Korean came by with more medals on his tunic than King Hussein. Korean Marine Corps. I narrated a brief account of my life and he grunted in Korean. So I spoke French to some Belgian officers and then some Frenchmen and good old American to guys in red T-shirts that said, "The Summer of '48-Parris Island."

They cleared us all out for a security check and after lunch I passed through the gate just before General Shalikashvili, and someone gave me a little card that said, "Thank you, Korean Vets. Love, American kids." I lost it a little bit then and later, when I bumped into some of The Chosin Few, the men who fought at the Reservoir, I lost it again. But some Native Americans from Minnesota in warbonnets came by and I cheered up. Mr. Clinton arrived about 2:45 and then Bob Dole and lots of South Korean bureaucrats. When it was over I walked for a way with a Brit. I knew he was a Brit because he wore tweeds in that heat and toted a brolly. He was Sandhurst, he said, and fought alongside us in the Royal Norfolks.

I'd fought in Korea and written about it and now I'd helped memorialize it. Life comes full circle, doesn't it? Back at the hotel I called my daughters in New York and when one said, "How was it, Poppy?" I couldn't talk, couldn't get the words out, but sat there on the hotel bed for a while until I was OK and could call them back.

In this article: