Showing posts with label korean war. Show all posts
Showing posts with label korean war. Show all posts
Monday, September 17, 2012 0 comments

Book Review: From Pusan to Panmunjom

Title: From Pusan to Panmunjom: Wartime Memoirs of the Republic of Korea's First Four-Star General
Author: Paik Sun Yup
ebook: 271 pages
Publisher: Potomac Books Inc. (October 1999)
ISBN-10: 1574887432
ISBN-13: 978-1574887433

An immensely important contribution to Korean War discussions, From Pusan to Panmujom chronicles the Korean War from instigation to armistice from the viewpoint of arguably the most influential and well-respected ROK Army officer ever, former General Paik Sun Yup. His involvement permeated virtually every major battle and decision that occurred on the battlefield and thus, innately qualifies him to narrate the vastly overlooked Korean perspective of the war. From frantically forming a counterattack to repel the invading North Korean forces, holding the line at the Pusan Perimeter, re-establishing tactical dominance back near the 38th parallel and beyond to capture Pyongyang, to domestic objectives such as quelling the communist guerrilla force near Mt. Jiri and representing the armed forces at the armistice talks, General Paik was the quintessential key player in every major event during the Korean War. His story is begging to be heard.

As Paik concedes, just prior to the war The ROK Army was an overwhelmingly under-equipped militia at best. It was only army in name. None of the heavy armor, long-range firepower, or logistical support existed yet and thus, was reduced to being compared to the U.S. Army as nothing more than a ragtag group of underpaid and undertrained volunteers and forced draftees. While this might be partially correct, the later joint U.S. Army's contribution of heavy armor and superior howitzers combined with the ROK's infantry proved to be an effective fighting force despite relatively little previous experience. Paik maintains that his men's determination to unify the country and staunch anti-communism stance steeled them into hardened soldiers willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the country. Paik proudly writes highly of his men; so much so that it's difficult to imagine how he must have dealt with the loses inflicted by the numerous Chinese human wave offenses that inundated his forces.

Not only was Paik the first Korean to reach the prestigious rank of Four-Star General, he was also amazingly young; few other 33-year-olds could claim his level of success. Yet, Paik comes off as a humble working-man's soldier; a man devoted to the service of his country but who could also see the internationally unfolding big picture. Even as he pens this memoir decades later, he attributes successes to those around him and claims responsibility for failures. Men of Paik's caliber are indeed rare. 

Paik's memoir affects me on a few personal levels. As a former enlisted member of the U.S. armed forces, I can understand the clear reasons why he was quickly promoted; Paik appears to have been an outstanding commanding officer at a time when they were likely few and far between. The history nerd in me appreciates Paik's ability to give grand scheme analyses when deconstructing individual battles; he appropriately expounds on certain contextual details to help color the circumstances that he and his men faced. His politically sensitive language, too, is foretelling of his second career in diplomacy. Furthermore, he often goes beyond dryly stating who did what; Paik briefs the reader of the men around him who would later rise to future successes inside and outside of the military. For all of Paik's militaristic achievements, he also maintains a certain degree of literary professionalism that hovers around frankness and cordiality. For such a heavy topic, it's really a great read.

This is a well-constructed memoir, no doubt about it. I have very few reservations about recommending it. If only the reader does a short brush-up on basic military hierarchy and unit strength comparison (corps, battalion, company, etc) the book then becomes highly appreciable by non-military and former military alike. Like many others who have read this book, I come away feeling not only more informed and also grateful to Paik for writing down his astonishing experiences. If you're interested in Korea or the Korean War, you will surely appreciate this organically Korean side of the story.

Sunday, May 27, 2012 0 comments

Book Review: The Search

Title: The Search
Author: Bobby F. Griffin
Softcover: 191 pages
Publisher: Creative Speaking Bureau (Sixth Printing, 1986)
ISBN-10:  N/A
ASIN: B0007BFNP4, B000MW7FPY, B0007335S4, B0026PZ7XW

An obscure but touching story to say the least, The Search briskly tells the story of a former United States Army sergeant who searches for his befriended young Korean orphan from the Korean War. Ghostwritten by minister and former editor of the Bristol Herald Courier Howard Taylor, Griffin's story starts in late 1951 when he decides to drop out of high school, join the Army, serve in Korea, return home and his subsequent search for the boy 20 years later.

As exciting as the premise is, there's not much meat to this story, unfortunately. Upon a routine supply stop in Seoul, Griffin stumbles upon a young shoeshine boy named Ko Yong Jae and, feeling an instant sense of trust in him, hires him, nicknames him "Butch" and takes him back to the camp. After managing to allow the boy to stay so long as he stays out of trouble, Butch earns his keep by becoming the houseboy for Griffin and several other soldiers. They endure a few hardships together but above all, they become close friends despite a language barrier. About a year later, after their friendship developed into a surrogate father-son relationship, Griffin rotates back to the states and loses touch with Butch. Griffin struggles with PTSD back home and frantically opens his own service station and even marries a nice, church-going local girl. From here on the book loses it's mainstream appeal.

This book is saturated with Christian doctrine and religious references that tend to alienate the reader. It slows down the narrative. It's also frightfully repetitive. Not only does the tale of searching for the houseboy get retold five times before the first chapter even starts (counting the cover, back cover, foreword, preface, and prologue), many of the same Bible verses are quoted throughout the story in vaguely inopportune times; Matthew chapter 6 verse 33 is listed at least three times. While I certainly have no qualms with a man's religious faith and the strength that one gathers from it, this book's story is bogged down by it's choice of literary detours.

After a bumpy middle, the story resumes with Griffin suddenly inventing those cardboard floor mats you might have seen at the car dealership. You know, those temporary mats that keep your car's carpet clean from the service technician? Griffin invented that.

Flash forward to sudden wealth, Griffin contemplates going back to Korea to find Butch. After a hesitate travel commitment, he joins a group of religious tourists who plan on visiting East Asian churches. Griffin agrees to come along as a motivational speaker but he also has personal plans to find Butch, despite so many telling him the impossibility of doing so.

Anticlimactically, Griffin convinces a local paper to run a short piece about his plea, Butch's cousin reads it and within a day, they are reunited. Not much of a search, really. Butch has done well for his family and drives a taxicab. The two are reunited. No canvasing the streets. No private detective. Just a small story in an even smaller newspaper.

This part of the tale happens just past the halfway point in the book and yet nothing much else progresses past this point. Butch is elated to be reunited with the former soldier who showed him kindness and Griffin is simply amazed at Butch's presence. That's what gets repeated over. Griffin can't believe Butch is here. He can't believe he's back in Korea. He can't believe this is where such and such happened. The author assumes entirely too much background information and leaves the reader wishing that he were in on the excitement. It's hard to relate to Griffin's nostalgia of being back in Korea because he indulged so little in the beginning of the story. It doesn't have that certain empathetic emotional connection that a good story should have. There are moments that were surely emotional for the two men but because the reader hadn't had a chance to get to know the key players well enough, you end up not really caring that they are visiting some obscure village that you didn't know about. Despite a satisfying amount of personal photographs help to accompany the story, I never really got the chance to feel attached to anyone.

A curious oversight is the age of the two men. Griffin was either 18 or 19 when he met Butch and sized him up at around 10. However, the Korean newspaper listed Butch as being 15 at the time. That only makes them a few years apart when they assumed a father-son type relationship. When they meet up again in 1974, their lack of real age gap shows. I wonder why this wasn't addressed?

Impressively, this vanity publishing has gone through several editions. The most current edition that I could find is from 1986 but the original story was written and published in 1974. Each addition has added another chapter to the epilogue but sadly, there weren't many revelations. True stories certainly don't have Hollywood endings and here is proof.

Ultimately, it's a short, forgettable true story that can be finished in one sitting. I really wanted to like this, but in the end, it felt like an elongated newspaper article soaked in Christian rhetoric. It's a touching story that should have been told by someone else.

- - - - - - -

I stumbled across a molded-shut copy of this book in an abandoned house. I was so interested that I tried to find a readable copy at the local library but couldn't find a ISBN. That's because there wasn't one. The best way to get additional copies, it seems, is to write directly to Griffin at 1051 Island Road, Bristol, VA 24201 or by calling 703-466-8080. I don't know if there ever was an another edition after the sixth (1986) edition but I'd be curious to see if anything ever came of Butch and his family. SWere there finally allowed to move to America?

I should point out that the protagonist was born in June of 1932 and appears to be a good, upstanding man. He should not be confused with the formerly disgraced politian of the same name born in August of 1935.