In these last few posts, I am talking about the training I was able to do while I was stationed in Okinawa, Japan! In the last post, I talked about training in the Philippines. This post will talk about training we did in South Korea.
We’ve Got Team Spirit!
Sometime around March of 1989, my unit participated in Team Spirit which was a joint/combined exercise designed to evaluate and improve the interoperability of the ROK (Republic of Korea) and U.S. forces (thanks Google). In-country forces were augmented for training purposes by U.S. Army, Navy, Marine and Air Force units from outside the ROK. It was always something we looked forward to because it was one of the longest times we would be deployed to the field to train. We also looked forward to liberty in Korea. While this was a large training operation that took place all over Korea, the majority of our time was spent around Pohang, which is on the coast, southeast of Seoul.
While life in the field is pretty monotonous, there were a few memories that I have of my time there that I will share here.
We flew from Okinawa to South Korea in a C-130 cargo plane. C-130’s were our usual mode of transportation from Okinawa to where-ever we were going to train. Most times, we rode in the regular C-130, but a few times, we rode in KC-130’s which were equipped with a removable 3600 gallon stainless steel fuel tank that would be used as extra fuel when required or also to refuel helicopters. It is a sight to be able to watch refueling operations out the back of an open aircraft.
I am not positive where we initially flew, but it had to be close to Pohang. We staged our gear for further transport to our main camp. I can’t remember what I did, but somehow, I got in trouble before we left and so I was the designated gear-guard, while everyone else got to explore the base. My platoon was selected to go to train with the Army at a base north of Seoul called Camp Stanley. We were supposed to have a helicopter take us up north to Camp Stanley (의정부시) but our transportation didn’t come, so we did what Marines always do. We adapted to our situation. We changed into civilian clothes and then carried our sea bags with the rest of our clothes to the civilian bus station and purchased tickets to Seoul. It was quite a ride. I’m sure the Korean citizens on that bus with us thought we were crazy.
Once we arrived in Seoul, we walked to a hotel and I believe we took every room they had available. I don’t remember much of that night. I remember that we arrived late and there wasn’t time to get food. I believe we each had an MRE to eat that night. I do remember we got a little time in Seoul to get food. We went to the Kentucky Fried Chicken place because that is all we knew.
The rooms were small and not very well lit, but it didn’t matter because as cold as it was outside, inside the rooms were toasty. They had heated floors and everyone walked around without shoes. I remember they had one small bathroom at the end of the hall that we all had to share. The next morning, the hotel gave us each a towel that had the name of the hotel embroidered on it. I still have the towel in the original paper bag they gave us.
Our platoon commander was the same Lieutenant that I had the previous run-in with. (Now that I think about it, that might be why I was put on guard duty) He was able to procure two civilian vans and we loaded ourselves and all of our gear into and on top of the vans and we drove up to Camp Stanley to do some AAAAArmy training! They had a Moving Target Simulator (MTS) there that we could use to practice aircraft tracking. It also enabled us to train with our Army counterparts. Since the base was close to the DMZ with North Korea, we studied the aircraft that North Korea flew. I believe we spent at least a week there. Every night, we got liberty so we were able to explore the local drinking establishments while we were there. It also enabled us to taste the local food. I had never had Korean food before so that was an experience!
When it was time to return to our main base, we had a CH-53 pick us up to takes us back. On the flight back, the crew of the CH-53 told us that they had to stop in Seoul to pick up some spare parts for another helo that had mechanical issues. As we were flying over Seoul, the pilot flew over some of the stadiums from the 1988 Seoul Olympics. I took some pictures of the stadiums looking out the back of the helo to the stadiums but I can’t find those pictures. It was a site to see! Eventually, we made it back to our main camp near Pohang. There we were assigned hard-back tents with oil heaters because it was cold. We were still waiting for our large gear locker to be delivered so I had to stand guard duty in regular boots. It was cold and raining and my feet got mild frostbite. Standing in the cold rain without any winter clothes was tough. I never want to be that cold again!
One of the coolest things I was able to do is go to the Mountain Warfare School. My unit (LAAD) could be attached to any other type of unit (infantry, heavy weapons, recon, artillery, etc) to provide air defense for that unit. Our main weapon is the Stinger Missile and we shoot that from the ground, so wherever we need to go to complete that mission, we must be able to get there. The two day school was challenging and fun. We spent the first day learning different rappelling techniques, then we actually perform them the afternoon of the first day and all day on the second. First on a 300 foot cliff and then Australian rappel (face first) off a 120 foot rope bridge. We ended the training with a 750-foot slide for life (twice!).
I don’t remember any more specifics about the training that we did, but I do have random memories of that Team Spirit:
- The oil heaters in the tents would get real hot if you didn’t watch them closely. I’m surprised none of our tents burnt down. I remember waking up one night and the oil heater and exhaust pipe was glowing bright orange because it was so hot.
- I developed some sort of boil or something on my back. I went to sickbay and they had to do surgery on it in a field hospital (tent) they set up. The resulting hole in my back was so deep that they couldn’t close it so twice a day, our corpsman had to change my dressings and pack the wound. It never healed right and even after 31 years, still have a large bump from that wound.
- On liberty we usually just went to restaurants and bars. One thing I discovered was after dark, vendors would set up little huts on the side of the streets and would cover them with a tarp. You could go into the little hut and eat raw fish and drink saki pretty cheap. They had a portable kerosene heater in them so it was one place you could get warmed up, both inside and out!
- The helo that picked us up at Camp Stanley to take us back to Pohang, crashed into the sea the very next day, killing a squad of Marines it was carrying. Training accidents happen and I feel fortunate that I wasn’t on that helo that day. My platoon got liberty about a week later and I remember calling my parents from a pay phone in Korea to tell them that I was OK and that I wasn’t involved in that crash.
- Showers were few and far between. If we got liberty, the first place we went in town was to the bath houses. For a few won, you could go into these public showers (spas?) that had hot showers and hot and cold pools. You would first take a hot shower and then get into the cold pool for a while, then into the hot pool. It was an experience, but let me tell you – a hot shower felt great! If we were in the field for an extended amount of time, we would get to go to the shower tent. We usually had it scheduled by platoon. It was a tent with pallet floors and numerous shower heads running down the middle. It was divided in two. The first part had benches where you dressed and the other part was the showers. There was no heat! The way it worked is that you would go get undressed and then go into the shower area with your soap. Once everyone was in, they would start the water pump and cold water would start spraying out of the shower heads. You’d get wet, lather up and rinse all in about 2 minutes because that’s all the water you got. When the water was shut off, you went into the dry area to change. It was miserable but getting clean, even if it was freezing, felt great.
- If you got in trouble in camp, you were usually assigned the burn barrel duty. Burn barrel latrines were wooden latrines with seats and holes over 55 gallon barrels cut in half. The barrels were primed with about 3 inches of diesel fuel. Once the barrels would get to 1/2 to 1/3 full, you would pull out the full barrel and replace it with a new one. Dragging out the full barrel was terrible. It sloshed all over you, no matter how careful you would be. You would then take the full barrel and add more diesel and gasoline unto it until the contents are covered and then you would light it on fire. You would then stir it until it burned to ashes. Once the contents of the barrels were burned, you would empty the contents out into a pit. It was a very messy duty and nobody wanted to be assigned that duty. When my platoon was assigned that duty, we took turns unless someone got into trouble, then they would automatically be assigned the duty. I only had to do this twice in the months we were in Korea, but that was enough. When you got done, you had fuel and crap all over you. If it wasn’t your day to get a shower, you had to live with the smell for days – as well as the other guys in the tent.
- When we were in the base camp, there was a large chow tent. Those were the only hot meals we got outside of liberty in town. Otherwise, we existed on MRE’s while in the field.
Team Spirit was a pretty long training exercise. I think we were there for about 3 months. The longest deployment I had was in 1988. I deployed as part of MAGTF 3-88 to the Persian Gulf. That lasted about 9 months and will be the subject of the next few stories. Stay tuned!