By Published on .

As a child I was fascinated by those occasional items in the paper about a French or Belgian farmer being blown up as he plowed his field by an unexploded artillery shell or mine left over from the First World War. That the shell or mine was German or French hardly mattered. The farmer was just as dead, just as maimed.

This interest on my part says something about the ghoulishness of small boys. But it also testifies to the fact these deadly nuisances have been around for a long time.

In recent days we've again focused on land mines. Princess Di had taken their innocent victims as one of her significant charities. Mike Wallace on "60 Minutes" did a piece from Cambodia, footage of children and other civilians hobbling about with one or both legs missing. On Sept. 3 a New York Times headline read with what struck me as false cheer, "South Korea Extols Some of the Benefits of Land Mines." Talk about silver linings. Then in Oslo, an international conference reached agreement to ban the use of anti-personnel land mines. But the U.S. abstained.

On Jan. 13, 1952 in the mountains of eastern North Korea I was blown up by a land mine myself. I'd been there as a rifle platoon leader in Dog Company of the 7th Marines since the previous Thanksgiving and on this occasion was leading a perfectly harmless daytime reconnaissance patrol down through a gully clogged with deep snow looking for, well, God knows what. In the Marine Corps you go out on patrol and you look about and sniff the air and come back and tell someone if you saw or smelled anything. Combat patrols are something else again and can get people killed. Night patrols, of any sort, are worse.

Dog Company then held a ridgeline of 800 or 900 meters in height facing a similar ridgeline across a narrow valley through which flowed a stream called the Soyang-gang. On the other side of the stream were the North Koreans. The ground had by this time been fought over four times as the armies advanced and retreated and advanced again. By now there were millions of mines and boobytraps laid in Korea, and in all honesty no one knew where they all were, no one had charts. We didn't; they didn't; and this is the pernicious thing about mines.

So I stepped on a mine and was blown into the air along with Sgt. John Fitzgerald of Flint, Mich., the first man behind me. I was knocked silly but otherwise unhurt and poor Fitz got shrapnel wounds to the hand and arm. Since he had been wounded only two months before in the assault on Hill 749, he was not happy. What saved us both was the three feet of snow that had fallen since, muffling the mine, diminishing its force.

All that winter and spring we lost men to mines. Even when we were in reserve areas and not actually in combat, Marines were killed and lost limbs on training exercises. You had to run the exercises but no one knew where the mines were. Back in the States we were given a derisory and superficial course in disarming mines. You prodded the ground gently with a bayonet and when it hit metal, you knew there was a mine there. And you dug it up. Carefully. And after you did there was always an NCO instructor who informed you, jolly and lugubrious at the same time:

"Sometimes they lay a second mine under the first so when you lift the top one, the one underneath goes off."

Oh. Thank you very much, sergeant.

Toward the end of my time in the war, on Memorial Day, we did a night patrol, 60 men or so, up a hill called Yoke. Were the Chinese holding Yoke or not? By now I was battalion intelligence officer and I told batallion commander Col. Gregory I didn't know. So he suggested I go out there and find out. When Col. Gregory suggested things I usually did them and so we went out and, yes, the Chinese were there.

Around 2 a.m., the first Marine up the slopes of Yoke-our point man-stepped on a mine and died. We went up there three times and three times the Chinese stopped us. Mostly with grenades, just rolling them down the hill. When daylight came we didn't have enough people left unwounded to go up again so we pulled back. Jack Rowe, the patrol leader, had been hit bad and we carried him and I asked Stew McCarty what I could do. Well, said Stew, do a head count. See if we've got everyone. So I started taking names and counting, strolling about the lower slopes of Yoke.

And quite sure that at any moment I was going to step on a mine and lose my legs. It was the most awful and unreasoning dread. I'd just experienced a classic Marine Corps fight, a frontal assault on an enemy hill-and survived. And I was sure that having made it that far, a mine was now going to kill or maim me. All these years later, I can remember how lightly I tried to step.

That's what they do, the mines. They kill you, they take your legs, and they get

Most Popular