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If it's 5 AM in Korea...
"If it’s five AM in Korea, what time is it in Ohio?" I thought as I slung another shovelful of mud out of the slowly deepening foxhole. That was a good enough distraction from my soaked clothes, chattering teeth and raw hands. "Okay, thirteen-hour time-difference… it’s four in the afternoon… yesterday. I wonder what Mom’s doing…"
“Coming through!” yelled my buddy, Max, dragging a large box of ammunition through my progress.
I stepped out of the way and drove my spade into the dirt, glad for the excuse to take a quick break. Two hours ago we had arrived at the hills; Colonel Smith thought this would be a good defensive position. The other enlisted men and I had been digging foxholes ever since. I wiped the moisture from my face with my sleeve. That didn’t help much, considering my sleeve was soaking wet. The humidity was unbearable. That was one of the many reasons I hated Korea: the weather. During the day you fried and at night you froze.
Frank slid into the foxhole. “Hey, Mason. Lieutenant Day sent me to relieve you. Go get some rest.”
“Thanks,” I said gratefully, handing him my shovel.
I pulled myself out of the foxhole and walked over to where some other guys were sleeping. I tried my best to get comfortable on the soggy earth, then closed my eyes.
I wasn’t nervous; this wasn’t even going to be a real battle. The only reason we were here was to scare off the North Koreans. General Bradley said that North Koreans wouldn’t dare fight against Americans. We would probably only be here for a little while and then go back to Tokyo. I fell asleep quickly, dreaming of geisha houses and drinking saki.
I awoke suddenly when I heard someone shout, “Lieutenant Day, look!” Dawn had broke and the road below us was in clear view. A procession of tanks was moving down it.
Lieutenant Day asked, “What are those things?”
A sergeant answered, “Those are T-34 tanks, sir, and I don’t think they’re going to be friendly toward us.”
Commotion followed as everyone scurried into the foxholes. Before I could jump in, however, Lieutenant Day ordered everyone in my hole to go down with Lieutenant Connor to assist the artillerymen. But they were stationed about a mile south, extremely close to the tanks.
"My God," I thought, "maybe there’s a real war going on!" Fortunately, Max and Frank were both with me, and they didn’t seem afraid. None of the other guys looked afraid either as we hurried around the back of the hills so we would not be seen by the tanks. My heart dropped into my stomach. I was a clerk, not a soldier! I was supposed to be operating a typewriter, not a rifle! Above all, I did not want to die. For crying out loud, I was only eighteen!
The group of about ten of us reached the artillerymen much too soon. Lieutenant Connor began to divide us into smaller groups, sending a few guys to each station.
“Shanks!” he shouted at Max, pointing to a machine-gun position. Max nodded and followed the order. He looked so strange next to the killer weapon, in fact all the guys did. We were just guys; we weren’t meant to fight and to kill.
Frank and I had not yet been assigned when the first shots were fired. I instinctively dove into the nearest foxhole. The infantrymen up in the hills hit four North Korean tanks, a petty number as more and more rolled in. The tanks retaliated and I heard screams in the hills; they hurt my ears even more than the ammunition.
“Auburn! Peterson! Get over here! Peterson, bring me a bazooka!” yelled Lieutenant Connor over the roar of the shells. Frank and I hastily obeyed. Each bullet fired sent pangs of terror flying all over my body. Would the next bullet take my life?
The Lieutenant dove into a ditch right alongside the road. Frank and I followed. The throng of tanks rumbled like stampeding elephants; I thought the road would crumble under their immense weight. Lieutenant Conner took the bazooka from Frank and aimed. He waited for two tanks to pass, and then he fired. I covered my ears as dozens of explosions shook the air. A howitzer on the opposite side of the road also fired on the tanks. My hands moved from my ears to my eyes as the first tank burst into flames only yards away.
I dared to look again when I heard the clang of the turret opening. Two North Koreans slowly rose from it, their hands in the air. They faced Max and the three other men in his machine-gun position. No one moved. Then suddenly a third leapt from the tank with a gun in his hand. Like the mouth of a dragon, it spewed fire toward the men and Max. I saw what happened, but I did not understand it. I felt numb. Only when Lieutenant Connor and the other men shot the three North Koreans did my legs sprint to my friend's side.
“Max! Max!” I cried, hurrying to his limp, unmoving body. Frank was right behind me. Nearly his entire torso was covered in blood. His eyes rolled around like marbles in his head for a moment, then rested. Max was gone.
“Peterson! Auburn! Let's go!” bellowed the Lieutenant, “Fall back!”
“Mason! Mason, you have to leave him,” Frank said before dashing towards the safety of the foxhole.
I shook my head, tears streaming down my face. How could I leave him? I dragged Max's body into the ditch and sat with my back to the tanks, my head in my hands. I couldn't look at his cold face, and at the same time, I couldn't look away.
Someone grabbed my shoulder. I screamed and threw myself over Max’s body. “Damn it, Auburn, can’t you follow an order??” Lieutenant Connor yelled into my ear.
I did not respond; I was too hysterical. The Lieutenant’s expression changed when he saw Max’s bloodstained corpse; his young, innocent face, lifeless. His grip on my shoulder softened, turning sympathetic.
“This is war, kid,” he said, “This is war.”