Kinfolk, Ancestors, History & Stories


Kinfolk & Ancestors

NC History

KY & NM History


Bible Records




Unknown Photos


...In which a photographer learns that a lens can never fully capture the violence inherent in war, nor can film register the intensity of human emotions in scales of gray.

by Marshall Douglas Early

The Hongch'on Valley looked like a thousand other valleys I remembered. Transplanted, it might have been a Blue Ridge landscape and no one would have found it unseemly. Only the smell of this land was different. Here was none of the musky-sweet fragrance of lands wistfully recalled--only the rankly rancid stench of human waste souring in the fields. In this it was typically Korean.

Studying the scene through the viewfinder of my press camera, I wished I could bottle its essence and ship it with the film. Give those Pentagon historians the real flavor of the land, I mused. I panned the camera methodically, recording the broad arc of the valley. It took three exposures, allowing for the customary overlap on each shot.

"Shoot lots of terrain stuff," the historical officer had told me at the briefing in Masan. Looking back, as I had found myself doing so often these past few days, I was likely to read some irony into that admonition. In a month on the lines with First Marine Division, I had found precious little else to shoot.

It had been a month of interminable patrolling--of fitful and indecisive skirmishes--with one bright spot in the middle called Hoengsong. On the snow-patched hills above the Hoengsong town, action had flared briefly but violently. Then the enemy had broken contact and the war degenerated into static defense lines while both sides consolidated positions and fattened on replacements and supplies. Now it was March 16, 1951, and the division was again on the move. it's orders were brief and to the point: "Engage the enemy and destroy him."

I had come to Hongch'on, in the hard-charging Seventh Marines' sector, because it had loomed on the operations map as the most likely spot to strike sparks on "jump-off" day. It was near noon when I overtook rear elements of the First Battalion, and word had just passed down the ranks to "unsaddle." The unit had covered five cautious miles since daybreak, and nobody waited for a second invitation. The battalion fanned out across a dry stream bed between barren hills and turned at once to the clamorous business of trading "C" rations. I picked my way through a parka-clad jungle of troops to the point of the sprawling column. There, a scout platoon occupied a low earthen levee overlooking the Hongch'on Valley.

I shrugged out of my pack and crawled up the embankment for an unobstructed view. A wooded mountain rose abruptly on the valley's opposing side and a shallow river threaded its floor in wide meanders. Topping the levee, a graveled road curved away along the river's edge to the tangled wreckage which marked the limits of Hongch'on village. Nothing stirred in the valley, and no sound broke the tranquility of high noon.

The day was shaping up like a fitting end to weeks of frustration. I knew photographers would have their innings in the days ahead but the thought brought little satisfaction. Tomorrow would find me in Masan, a hundred miles from the war. "In the rear with the beer and the gear," the troops liked to put it.

Not that I objected to the beer or the gear, but a tour of duty in Masan meant another encounter with Captain Smitt, the division photo officer. And I was not ready to face that. Not yet. I had been goaded into an angry boast at our last meeting--a boast I had flatly failed to make good. For the one-hundreth time I rehashed that scene in the captain's tent, arriving as always to the same weak and wishful conclusion: If I could only turn back the calendar to February 16...

Captain Smitt has been sitting at his field desk when I pushed through the tent flaps and straightened to attention. "Reporting as directed, sir," I announced. "The duty NCO says the captain wished to speak to me."

Captain Smitt nodded toward a camp chair. "Sit down, son. and let's drop the military protocol. We'll both be more at ease if you know that I know you hate my guts."

The captain was a sarcastic little man who spent most of the time in his tent nursing a frost-bitten foot and a grouch as big as Korea. The sore foot was a souvenir of the division's December retreat from the Chosin Reservoir. Where he had picked up the grouch was anybody's guess, but there were few men in the unit who had not felt the lash of it. At thirty-five, he was not only the ranking officer, but the oldest man in the section. It was typical of his unmilitary manner that he called everybody "son," and I had long suspected the paternalism ended right there.

Certainly it was no paternal gaze he turned on me. "I'll get to the point," he said bluntly. "You're barely six weeks out of the states and you've had at least one beef with every man in this section, except me. Just so I won't feel neglected, suppose you tell me what the hell is bothering you?"

It was all wrong, this line of talk--not at the way I'd have written the script. I took a deep breath...

"I'll tell you what's bothering me, captain. It's Masan and the rear echelon, and most off all it's these damned "Joe Blow" photo assignments. Joe Blow writing a letter home. Joe Blow shopping in a Korean market. Joe Blow getting pinned with a Purple Heart. And all the time, my wife telling our stateside friends I'm a combat photographer."

The captain watched me across the littered desk and his pale blue eyes registered something suspiciously like indifference. i let him have the rest of it.

"I'm flat fed up with this Joe Blow outfit. Either I take my camera north or I take a transfer to a rifle company."

Captain Smitt was stung at that. he shoved his chair away noisily and limped across the tent to stand above me. One hairy hand gripped my shoulder hard and his unshaven face bristled down inches from my own.

"You'll get a transfer only over my signature, and don't you ever forget it," he growled. "Now I'm going to give you some more straight dope and you're going to listen. It's a small section, and talk has a way of getting around. They say your hellbent to hang a photo in the Library of Congress. Well, don't think you're different. Six months in this stinking bush war, and I've handled glory-hungry photographers before you came along. Just in case you've got reservations about that, you'll find their names on the graves registration roster."

The grip on my shoulder relaxed and the captain hobbled to the oil heater where a magnum of saki lay half immersed in a pan of steaming water. He tested the bottle's temperature. replaced it in its bath, and resumed his place at the desk. When he spoke again, it was without a trace of anger.

"They were good men, all of them, but they had this fool dream. Trouble was, time ran out on them before they learned how damfool it was. You see, son, a really great picture comes along maybe once in a wartime, and even then it's ninety-nine percent a case of photographer's luck."

"I can't buy that," I objected. "All the elements are there in any combat situation--all the things that go to make a picture great. It's the photographer's job to recognize the historical moment, that's all."

"And you think you would recognize this historical moment?" the captain asked.

The old sarcasm was back in that question. The captain was baiting me, and I sensed in some vague way I had reached a point of no returning.

"I'd recognize it," I said with bitter conviction, "not that I'm likely to get a chance."

"Oh, you'll get your chance, all right," the captain said. "I'm detaching you for duty with Division Historical Section. Pack your gear, draw enough film for thirty days in the field, and report to Lieutenant Patten at the CP compound. If I know the lieutenant, he'll give you enough rope to hang yourself."

"That will be all," said Captain Smitt, and he turned to test the saki bottle. I had been too stunned to thank him. Two hours later, in Lieutenant Patten's office, I was on surer footing. The young officer was cordial but obviously harassed.

"Welcome aboard," he greeted me. "They sometimes call us the 'hysterical section,' and not without cause. Your orders are cut and I've attached a list of the photos we need--mostly routine stuff like CP locations, roads, bridges, and lots of terrain shots. Captain Smitt tells me you're 'gung ho' for some combat photos and that's okay by us. You'll have to ship your battle film to Headquarters, care of Navy Command, Tokyo. It takes a cruddy month to get returns, but that's the way the ball bounces."

"One more detail," he added, as I turned to go. "One of your duties is to edit the photo supplement to our historical diaries. That means I'll expect you back in Masan on March 17, without fail."

And that had been that. It had not gone badly at Division Forward, at least not at first. For one thing, there was Hoengsong, and instinct told me some of my Hoengsong photos were good. But nowhere had I captured my historical moment. Captured it hell, I hadn't even seen it!

Now it was March 16, and time was running out. I searched the Hongch'on Valley north and south, then west to the brooding mountains. It was shrouded in stillness as oppressive as gloom. Shouldering my pack, I struck off  toward the right flank where a charcoal oven crouched on a knoll overlooking the village. The muted cackle of radios marked it as the communications center. On a slope nearby, the battalion commander huddled over a map case with his company officers.

"Have your units ready to move promptly at 1300," he was saying. "I've called for air observation and we'll move as soon as we get a picture of the situation. Intelligence is spotty, so we'll have to play it by ear. G-2 is betting on trouble, once we cross the river. North Korean units have been observed digging-in north and west of the village." He circled the areas on his map.

"Now for the afternoon's operation," he continued, "Able and Charley companies will move out first. Their target is Hill 291, that whopper directly across the valley. As soon as they have it sewed up, Baker Company will make a sweep around its right flank to Hill 77. That's one of the hills G-2 has pegged for a hot spot, and if they're right, Baker has its work cut out. Fortunately, it's good tank terrain and we aim to make the most of it. I've called for tanks and they're committed for 1300. Dog Company will be in reserve. now the rest of you had better alert your men. It looks like an easy day's work but you never know, and that's for sure."

As the unit commanders ambled off to join their outfits, a column of tanks filed out of the canyon and deployed before the levee. They were sleek, powerful M-26's, and they carried their 90-millimeter rifles at a jaunty angle. Moments later, an observation plane scudded over the CP, wagging its wings in greeting. Then it droned toward the mountain, filling the valley with sound. The battalion CO checked his watch and grinned approval.

A thousand eyes followed the little ship as it made a lazy pass above the black escarpment. Suddenly it banked sharply and dropped almost to the treetops. A radio sputtered to life beside the charcoal oven and an operator clutched his head set and yelped excitedly.

"They've spotted something," he shouted. "They're going back to drop a smoke pot."

A popping flurry of small-arms fire drifted across the valley and the plane skittered down the mountain side, racing full throttle toward the levee. Behind it, a smoke grenade blossomed mushroom-like among the trees.

"Incoming mail!" The cry rose from the levee and was echoed by a chorus of voices in the canyon. A mortar round whispered in, crashing harmlessly on a ridge top. A dozen more followed in quick order. They were landing much closer now, and some were drawing blood. It was big stuff, probably 120's, and the air was filled with cordite and shrapnel, and cries of "Corpsman!...Corpsman!"

Our own mortars were instantly in action, adding to the confusion of sounds. Shouts of "On the way!" announced the rythmic "thrump" of the four-point-twos. On the mountain, fingers of white phosphorous reached out to explore the dark grove marked by the smoke grenade. Enemy fire diminished, the died, and silence settled again over the valley.

Able Company already was streaming across the levee. Charley Company measured a discreet interval and followed. I looked at the forbidding face of Hill 291 and decided to share Baker's destiny when it went after the low ground. It was 1400 when a brightly colored air panel flashed from the mountain top, signaling the objective was ours. Able and Charley had scored a bloodless victory. The outnumbered defenders had "bugged out."

Now it was Baker's turn. We forded the Hongch'on-gang under the watchful eyes of the tankers. Dozens of troops--the last to quit the levee--crowded aboard the tanks for dry passage. They were the lucky ones. It was a day of brilliant sunlight, but the water still hoarded the chill of a long winter. Patches of soiled snow lingered on in shady ravines and under thickets of evergreen, feeding the stream with icy trickles. Above the ford where river skirted the village, a highway bridge dangled a broken span in the water.

Baker moved quickly into the long shadow of Hill 291, across furrowed fields toward the ridge it's objective. Minutes later, I crouched beside the scouts and looked on our target for the first time. Only a narrow canyon separated us from the enemy position. A woodsy hillside sloped gently to the canyon floor, past a cluster of farm buildings. Beyond it a slender patch of open ground was bisected by a muddy ribbon of a road with rice paddies on each side. And there was Hill 77. Fresh earthworks traced a raw, red contour line across its face fifty feet above the paddies. It was plain to see the defenders aimed to make this a costly proposition. it was equally plain the threat would have to be removed if Baker was to enjoy any security this night.

While support platoons ranged right and left, setting up bases of firepower, members of the assault platoon eyed the hill glumly. A tank rumbled down the slope, bulled through the farmyard fence and halted at the edge of the paddies. It was quickly flanked by others, buttoned-up and combat ready.

A big blond gunnery sergeant rose to his feet. "We've got to take it, men," he said resignedly. "It might as well be now." The platoon lunged over the crest, making fast time to the farmhouse. Our support platoons were pumping fire into Hill 77, but were drawing no response. The enemy was giving away no positions.

There was a momentary flurry of conversation from the platoon, crouching behind a garden wall. A squad leader barked an order and a four-man fire team leaped from hiding. With rifles at the ready, they fell behind the lead tank. It already was grinding forward.

The enemy hill came alive slowly. A spatter of rifle fire burst from the flank entrenchments, prevailed a moment, then gave way to the clamor of automatic weapons. I dropped into a shellhole and unlimbered my camera. A marine broke from an exposed position in the rice field and raced for the cover of a retaining wall. A swath of bullets sent mudballs flying about his feet, and even as I tracked his progress, the swath overtook him and cut him down. A tank rocked to a halt beside the wounded man, turning a contemptuous broadside to the enemy. under its protection, a medical corpsman dashed in to assess the damage.

The battle was a nightmare of sound and fury. From one bunker came the spiteful chatter of a Japanese "99," and somewhere a Nambu played its slow-measured tune. Between bursts from the heavy weapons, Russian "burp-guns" barked and sputtered. The "gooks" had burrowed deeply into the hill and were firing from the depths of their dugouts to conceal the telltale flash of their automatics. Closing to point-blank range, tankers were systematically pin-pointing the dark weapons ports in the tawny hillside. An M-26 would maneuver a moment, then lay its big gun in on a target. The emplacement would erupt with a roar, spewing earth and human debris, then settle into a cup-like depression.

Meanwhile, the assault platoon sprinted to the base of the hill. by twos and threes, men dashed crookedly over the rice field and tight-roped along the retaining walls. Enemy fire was becoming erratic. I took a firm grip on my camera and made the trip. As the final bunker exploded, the platoon charged through showering fragments up the slope and into the trench. The assault ended as it had begun, in a spasm of rifle shots. A fire team was detailed to mop up the position; the rest of the platoon spurted for the hilltop. I settled down to snap some photos of the trench and bunkers. For all the tank gunners' diligence, they remained a remarkable complex of earthworks.

First, the defenders had constructed a narrow trench about five feet deep. From the floor of this slit they had tunneled outward to the face of the hill, cribbing their bunkers with timbers, taking care to leave the surface undisturbed except for the small weapons ports. One bunker apparently had escaped the full fury of of the tankers and I dropped into the trench to snap a close-up of the thing. I moved out fast when a grenade bounced through the crawl-way door. Cowering in the crater of a ruined bunker, I waited for an explosion that never came.

I wondered if I dared to stick my head into the trench for another look at that dud grenade. i could almost swear it was one of the wooden-handled "potato masher" jobs. The Japanese had used a few in World War II, I recalled, but north Koreans traditionally preferred the cylindrical types.

A rifleman from the mop-up team ambled along the slope above the trench. "Getting any pictures?" he asked. I gestured toward the objectionable bunker and shook my head.

"I know the bastard's in there," he said, and spat into the trench. "You got any grenades?"

"No, but I know somebody who has," I confided.

"Yeah, so do I. Guess we'd better get rid of him before he gets rid of us." Cupping his hands around his mouth, he shouted to a group of men huddled at the foot of the hill. "Hey, Red! How about some fire in the hole?"

Moments later, Red sprawled, panting, in the hole beside me. "Been here a helluva lot sooner if I'd seen the camera," he quipped with a broad grin.

Red was a big man--about thirty, I guessed--and like most of us, a retread from another war. While he armed a TNT charge he talked of other campaigns, recalling places like Tarawa and Saipan with casual familiarity. But even while he reminisced, his eyes searched the slope and the trench line, alert to danger. I recognized something substantial in Red, something infinitely reassuring about his presence. He belonged to that special breed of marines, schooled in war, who combine caution and contempt into a refined brand of courage. And I hoped he'd get the show on the road before the light went out. Shadows were deepening and I hadn't tripped a shutter in thirty minutes.

Red finished his charge. He crawled to the trench, sized up the bunker and signaled to the rifleman. I wriggled out of my parka, feeling the ground cold against my belly as I wrapped the camera and hugged it tightly, waiting for the blast. Red stood abruptly and his arm made a wide arc as he tossed the charge. Then he flung himself into our puny shelter and the concussion waves lifted us high and slammed us down hard. The helmet was sucked from my head and I was thankful the chin strap had been unlatched. By the time I found my helmet and unwrapped the camera, Red was back from an inspection of the bunker. his eyes sparkled.

"This ain't a bit like the old Corps," he said, laying heavy emphasis on the "old." "You shoulda had a picture of that one."

"Say," he added thoughtfully, "isn't that thing beside you moving?"

Startled, I followed his fixed stare to the saucer-shaped depression at my feet. Sure enough, something was moving--something that resembled a swatch from a dirty, black bath mat. Kneeling, I scraped away a handful of earth. A forehead took shape. A few more scoops revealed a head, complete with shoulders.

Red moved closer, studying the flat face and quilted shoulders intently. "Well, I'll just be damned!" he exploded. "We've done captured ourselves a Chinese-type gook!"

"You sure?" I asked.

"You're right now looking at an authority on Chinamen," Red assured me. "I'll swear I personally met half the gooks in China on that road back from 'frozen Chosin'."

This soldier's identity could explain a lot of things, I told myself. The unusual bunkers, the potato masher grenade, the motley assemblage of weapons--a lot of things. And as late as March 14, our patrols had taken North Korean prisoners in this same sector. The sudden switch was bound to signify something important.

The Chinese soldier was showing signs of consciousness. Watching him, it occurred to me Division Intelligence would be happy to ask this boy some questions.

"Do you realize what a prize we've got here?" I asked Red.

Red realized, all right. "Just don't get shook," he advised. "Sometimes they're all shot up underneath and die as soon as you uncover them. I've seen it happen before."

I had to admit it was likely. A tank shell had slammed into the hill, almost dead center on the bunker. Nothing short of a miracle had kept its occupant from being killed outright.

Red drew his canteen, sampled its contents, then dumped the remainder on the soldier's head. The Chinese came around in a fit of blubbering, opening his eyes to stare at us dully.

"You okay?" I asked him.

He appeared to ponder the question. He looked critically at the globe-and-anchor emblem on Red's pile cap, then spat out a mouthful of dirt.

"Ding-hao," he said finally.

That plainly was going to be all the conversation until we got an interpreter on the hill. Red shouted something to the group below and two men detached themselves from the huddle and started toward us. I freed the soldier's arms. Red found an entrenching tool and tossed it to the Chinaman. But the latter had something on his mind besides digging. he swiveled around awkwardly, peering over his shoulder toward a hill on our exposed right flank. One of our tanks was patrolling that sector, its bogie wheels grinding. The Chinaman gestured in that direction and spouted a mouthful of unintelligible sound. Red unslung the Tommy gun which he carried guerilla-fashion across his back. Nudging its muzzle firmly against the soldier's head, he pointed to the shovel. Language barriers collapsed. The Chinaman grabbed the shovel and turned-to with enthusiasm.

I had forgotten for a little while that my primary role was to take pictures, not prisoners. I seized the camera and jockeyed into position for a shot of the activity. It was an arresting scene, and I cursed myself for dawdling. With growing excitement, I dropped on my knees to expose the few remaining sheets in the film pack. The light was fading and I knew there would be time for no more.

An interpreter arrived and squatted beside the prisoner. he was followed by a medical corpsman who stood watching the operation, his eyes crinkled with amusement. The interpreter was a youthful Korean in ill-fitting dungarees, and he was having a bad time. He looked at us apologetically.

"Me speak only skoshi Chinese. He say gun, big gun..."

His words were punctuated by a long burst of machinegun fire. Bullets ranked the trench line and sizzled through the air like angry hornets. A second burst scattered the platoon on the hilltop. Red and a corpsman fell soundlessly and lay within reach of my hand. On the uphill rim of the trench, a rifleman clutched a shattered arm and sat with his head pressed tightly between his knees. The prisoner and interpreter were scared but untouched, for the burst had ripped over us as we crouched together.

There was a round, blue hole between the corpsman's eyes. I unsnapped his aid pack and turned to Red. He, too, had an ugly head wound. Chill sweat seeped out of my pores and stung my eyes as I fumbled with the battle dressings. Red's bleeding had slowed, but so had his breathing and his pulse. Something told me then it was a lost cause.

When I looked up again, the rifleman had left the hill. So had the interpreter. The Chinaman was digging as though finally convinced his life hinged upon it. Then I felt a little sick, as I always do after excitement. And lying beside Red, watching his face grow still and white, feeling his blood sticky-cold on my hands, was doing me no good at all.

The Chinaman came unstuck from the hill and wallowed near the bunker, rubbing his legs. I watched him cautiously, my hand close to my pistol. But he was no longer the menace of an hour ago. Just a frightened, fuzzy-faced kid whimpering from pain and fear and fatigue. I knew he had had the course.

A firefight was making up between our hilltop platoon and the machinegun across the ravine. I picked up Red's Tommy gun and stripped the magazine pouches from his belt. Through the deepening dusk, I caught the suspicion of a twinkle on the enemy hill. The gun was perfectly situated to command the position we had taken. I wondered why the gunner hadn't opened on us when we charged the bunkers. Maybe he had been awed by our tanks? Or maybe he had played it cool, after all, waiting to get the most for his money? Certainly he had watched and waited--and our Chinese prisoner had known he was there. I realized, with dumb remorse, he had tried to warn us.

I spread the spare magazines in front of me, waiting for that telltale twinkle. When it came, I lined the sights below it and squeezed off a few rounds. I emptied the magazine that way, bringing the gun down on target after each burst. The enemy gun continued to flicker and its clatter echoed hollowly between the hills. I slammed home a new magazine and poured its load across the ravine in longer volleys. Waves of warmth rose form the barrel and my shoulder throbbed pleasurably from the bouncing recoil.

New flashes were etching a pattern along the enemy flank and fire was stitching our hill from top to bottom. From the river ridge behind us, a rocket flare arched high into the sky and exploded in a shower of stars. Baker Company was calling in the troops. The platoon swarmed down the slope, pausing only to scoop up the dead and the wounded. I looped the Tommy gun over my shoulder and grabbed my camera gear. The Chinaman came along without urging, setting a hot pace across the paddies.

An hour later I was clinging to the gun mount of a weapons carrier as it jostled down the last winding tract into Division Forward. Behind me, two "shotgun riders" shared a seat-rack with the Chinese prisoner. Three poncho-shrouded forms lay on the floor--Red, the corpsman, and the marine who had fallen on the rice field. The driver delivered his inert cargo to Graves Registration, then dropped me and my charge at Division Intelligence. A lantern burned in the blackout tent where two interrogators awaited our arrival. While one penciled a receipt for the prisoner, the other frisked the Chinaman systematically.

Snow was starting to fall as I walked to the photo tent--great, moist flakes that arrived soundlessly. The tent was cozy, my sleeping bag snug, and my body bone-weary. Still, sleep did not come quickly. The events of that exciting afternoon haunted my mind in such starting clarity I shuddered at remembered moments which had not shaken me in the light of day. More compelling than all others was the image of Red and the prisoner, even as my lens had captured them. Did I dare to hope I had found my historical moment at Hongch'on, on a hill death held in thrall? Wide awake now, I pondered the tempting thought, seeing my doubts dispelled one by one until hope gave way to conviction. All that remained was to post my film and await my day of vindication. Suddenly, Masan seemed more inviting and even the specter of Captian Smitt mellowed into affability.

I was soon to learn Masan held other challenge than a meeting with the captain. In a ramshackle dwelling in the corner of the CP compound, Historical Section translated the terse statistics of war into words and pictures. Here time was the enemy, and time was compounded of paper--reports, orders, unit diaries. Many of these papers were missing in the wake of the abortive Chosin Reservoir campaign and light burned late as historians struggled through the accumulated confusion of months.

Lieutenant Patten found quarters for me in a hutment housing division archives. It was a comfortable room, with a cot, a chair and a field desk. Some former tenant had thoughtfully papered the leaky walls with Chinese propaganda posters. But my visions of creature comfort were shattered at staff meeting next morning. The section was bringing history up to date by compiling three monthly diaries concurrently, and I learned with dismay I would have three photo supplements to assemble. One blessing attached: I could set my own pace. I plotted a sixteen-hour work day, and buckled down.

For all its bleak beginning, the month of march ended on a high note--or I should say, two high notes. First there was a letter from the Public Information Officer at Division Forward. Headquarters had liked my Hoengsong photos, he said, and had released them to the press. Congratulations, and wouldn't I make it a practice to shoot more combat stuff? Then came an intelligence bulletin from Far East Command with excerpts from the interrogation of Private Hu, lately of the Chinese People's Volunteer Forces of Korea. Private Hu, the bulletin related, had been captured near Hongch'on on March 16 by units of the Seventh Marines. Bitterly denying his volunteer status in the CPVF, Hu had gone on to prove himself a fountain of reliable military information. I read the account with fierce satisfaction, living once again those bitter-sweet hours on Hill 77.

Weeks passed without word of my Hongch'on photos, yet confidence never ebbed. Gone were the doubts which--for a little while--had clouded my historical moment. I knew it would be mine and I desperately wanted the recognition to lean on before chancing a showdown with Captian Smitt.

I had successfully avoided any meeting with the captain, but there came a day in mid-April when I could stall no longer. My work in Masan was nearly done. I jeeped across town to the Photo Section to draw supplies for a new assignment. It was an intense spring day. Barley fields were darkly greening and flowering orchards filled the air with a fragrance even the "honey carts" could not challenge. In the camp beside the sea-wall, tent flaps were furled to an on-shore breeze. As I walked down the company street, Captain Smitt hailed me from an open doorway.

"Don't see much of you since you got famous. I hear they're calling you 'the poor man's David Douglas Duncan'." His tone was friendly, but faintly bantering. I stopped short, wondering if he had finally gone "Asiatic."

"Well, don't stand there," he said. "Come on in and gloat over your press clippings." He pointed toward the field desk where stacks of newsprint lay in ordered profusion. "In case you're wondering why nobody gave you the word," he explained, "these came in an hour ago."

I shuffled through the clippings of a dozen division photographers, sorting my own photos into a separate heap. My Hoengsong work had gotten a good play and I had scored with a few shots I'd never counted on. Then I turned my attention to the largest stack of all, unfolding an impressive tear sheet from a metropolitan daily. The long suspense was ended. There, three columns wide and half a page tall stood a sullen-faced Red, glowering down on a bewildered Chinaman who seemed to sprout out of the earth. My excitement turned to disappointment. The scene looked trite and contrived, like one of those made-to-order "setups" in cheap fiction magazines. Simply another photograph--documentary, nothing more.

Behind me, Captian Smitt cleared his throat noisily. "Damned fine shot," he commented. "A man could almost say--a historical moment." He slouched in a camp chair, one foot propped on a cot. A section of the exposed shoe had been cut away and the toes which protruded were dark and swollen.

I hoped the captain would drop the subject of the photo, and not compound my confusion. I tried to frame a distracting question about the frostbite, but words eluded me.

"Am I right, then?" he persisted. "Were you really shooting for that historical moment?"

"I don't know," I answered lamely. "Maybe I was shooting for the moon and just didn't know it."

"Don't knock it, son," the captain said. "It's a good lick, and you know me for one who doesn't pass out kudos every day. If it fell short of what you expected--well, maybe it's a case of the tress obscuring the forest. Now there's a proverb with whiskers, yet photographers still get killed trying to disprove it."

Suddenly he laughed. "Hell! Here I go on a fire-and-brimstone sermon, and it in't even Sunday. There's a bottle of good bourbon in the foot locker and cups on the desk," he added. "Suppose you round them up, and let's have us a drink or two?"

I complied gladly. The captain splashed an inch of whiskey into each canteen cup and sloshed his own drink reflectively before he spoke. "What would you say," he asked slowly, "about drinking the first one to Conlus--and my orders there, effective tomorrow?"

Conlus. Continental limits of the United States. So that explained the captain's rare mood? The awkward jargon-word evoked instant visions of home and family. My throat ached painfully and I hoisted my my cup without replying.

Captian Smitt drained his liquor and adjusted his lame foot on the cot. "They had to give up on it here," he explained. "The doc says I'll probably lose three toes, but I told him that's cheap enough for a ticket stateside."

"And while we're on the statside kick," he added, "when are you going to start marking time for rotation, instead of bucking all the averages?"

"What gives you the idea I'm trying to do myself in?" I asked.

"Come off it," the captain objects. "You know, I'm not the only one who's sized you up for a loser. Scuttlebutt has it you were snapshooting in Hoengsong before the scouts moved in. And that business in Hongch'on was a little above and beyond, if you stop to think about it--and maybe this would be a good time to begin."

I marveled a moment at this swashbuckling caricature the captain had created in my image. But was it further from reality than my own cherished image of the captain--that frustrated, desk-bound martinet, jealous even of the least of his subordinates? Now here he sat, knowing his war was over, yet still concerned with one man's folly.

"I don't get it, captain," I said. "Your sure don't owe me any favors, so why this compulsion to keep me from getting clobbered?"

"It's not your endearing charm," Captain Smitt assured me good-naturedly, "and I could also say it's none of your damned business, but I'm not going to. I think it's time I told you a little story about historical moments." He turned to replenish the empty cups.

"I got my first combat assignment back in "44," he recalled, "when Corps gave me a photo unit ands shipped me off to film the Peleliu landing. Those days, I was barley a year out of civvies, and still the Madison Avenue hotshot. They took the security wraps off two days out of Pearl Harbor and I called the crew together and laid it on the line: We had movie teams and still men and film to burn--and we had seventy t-two hours to give Peleliu the damndest photo coverage since the Normandy beachhead."

"Most of the boys were as hot to trot as I was. Like me, most of them had never been kissed. There was one old-timer in the unit, a salty type named Bill Moss who was sweating out his sixth campaign in thirty months. He was buying none of it, but I didn't let him worry me. Bill was a movie man with a reputation for getting the job done."

"Well, every damned man of us hit the beach with the assault waves. I set up shop in the Beachmaster's dugout, and in the next three days I air-shipped more film than Corps had ever seen before. But communications were shot to hell after D-plus-one, and I didn't find out how much it had cost until I called role for embarkation manifest. I could have mustered my crew in a phone booth."

"They flew us back to Pearl," Captain Smitt continued. "There was Bill Moss and four others--five out of fifteen who went ashore. Ten men out of action, and five of them had bought it! I did some soul-searching on that flight, and when we got to headquarters I suited up and headed for Honolulu to check the morning papers. I knew the Peleliu story had broken stateside. Maybe I figured I could sleep easier, knowing some of those boys had scored a print."

"And you know what I found?" The old bitterness crept back into the captain's voice. "Every goddamn paper on the newsstand had a dandy Peleliu shot spread across page one--a gory gyrene, reunited with his Navy nurse sister in an air-evac station, and photographed by a Navy cameraman a thousand miles from Peleliu."

"And you talk about historical moments like they're a dime a dozen," he accused. "How'd you like to explain your theory to five Gold Star mothers?"

The captain's intensity was embarrassing, and when he reached for his drink I rose to go. But he was having none of it. "Not yet," he said. "I don't want you to think the Peleliu job was all snafu. It wasn't. Headquarters went "ape" over some of the stills, and Hollywood agents stood in line to bid for our movie stuff. Bill Moss snagged a citation for his movie work, and if I'd had my way it would have been a Legion of Merit. No historical moments, you understand, but great documentation--and on top of that, Bill made it back."

"Later, when I'd gotten to know Bill better, I asked him how he'd managed it--how he'd beaten the averages through six of the bloodiest campaigns in the record books. Well, part of it was luck, Bill figured, but most of all, he had a gimmick going for him. Whenever he felt the war closing in, or got to thinking about the glory he was missing in those close combat shots, he'd fold up shop and take a souvenir patrol--said it helped him keep the war in its right perspective."

We sat quietly for a time. The afternoon sunlight fell across the cot where I sat, already warmed by the captain's whiskey and his unexpected camaraderie. It was Captain Smitt who broke the silence.

"You'll be going north again soon?" he asked.

"Sooner or later," I replied, "when I've secured a few details at the section."

The captain measured the remaining whiskey into our cups and rose unsteadily to his feet. "They tell me souvenir hunting has never been finer," he said. "No booby traps, no regrets." He lifted his cup in a sweeping salute. "Here's to souvenirs!"

"To souvenirs!" I replied.

We shook hands briefly, and I took my requisition list to the supply sergeant. It was twilight when I reached the compound, stowed my gear and relaxed on the cot. It was, I concluded, a day to remember. The captain's story puzzled and disturbed me. Certainly it offered no salve for the sore spot left by my Hongch'on photo. I took the clipping from my pocket and studied it, trying hard to summon objectivity. It was a "good lick," Captain Smitt had said, and I knew I could depend on his candor. But some important ingredient was missing. In its place was all the triteness I had sensed at first--triteness and emptiness and unreality.

What elusive quality had my lens failed to capture? Somewhere there had to be an answer, and that somewhere was obvious: I would go back to Hongch'on--back to Hill 77. With luck I could be there tomorrow, or perhaps the day after...

But my next assignment did not take me near Division Forward. Instead, I drew a thirty-day tour of Logistics Command--the men behind the men--where never a shot is fired in anger. So summer was heavy on the land when, at last, I found a weekend of freedom and set out on my Hongch'on holiday. Following a sleepless night aboard a Wonju-bound convoy, I flagged a munitions truck headed for division lines. The driver was talkative at first but as the morning grew longer he subsided into muttered curses aimed a the heat and dust. We cleared the checkpoint at Hoengsong and turned up the broad river course newsmen called "Massacre Valley," the scene of the tragic U.N. rout in February. It was yellow with fields of rice and barley, bleaching untended under the sun. I tried to reconcile it to grim recollections, for I had passed this way before. Then it had been early March, and a light snowfall had dusted the crippled war machines and the bodies of of our naked dead, looted to the flesh by shivering Chinese soldiers. Finally I closed my eyes and thought of Hongch'on and Hill 77, recalling an hour no longer bright and shining.

"Looks like this is it," the driver said.

I roused from a half-sleep and looked around. We were crossing the Hongch'on-gang on the concrete bridge. A steel treadway spanned the gap opened by our bombers in the first chaotic days of the Red offensive.

"Hell of a way to fight a war," the driver grumbled. "We bomb 'em: we repair 'em."

The village was fighting its way up from a jungle of rubble. Koreans wandered through the wreckage, salvaging what they could. Along the main street, a score of homes and shops stood completed, each a perfection of patchwork. The driver wheeled the "six-by-six" around a cramped corner while an Army MP in a sparkling white helmet watched the maneuver critically.

"Are we that far from the war?" I asked in amazement.

"Lines are almost to the 38th Parallel in some places," the driver said.

The ruins of Hongch'on were giving way to farm lands and the road was closing fast with a westerly-running line of hills. "Let me out here," I said.

I dragged my gear to the roadside and stood there beating the dust from my dungarees, looking about me uncertainly. That muddy ribbon of road I remembered from March had turned, in May, to a wallow of powdery white. An Army field hospital stood where rice paddies should have been, sprawling like a tent carnival without the trimmings. Still, it had to be the place. I picked up Red's old Tommy gun and turned up the slope. The hill masqueraded in the most damnable deceit of all. It was shaped as I remembered it, but smaller--so much smaller!

I stumbled into the trench while my eyes still searched for it on the slope above. And then all doubt was ended. The cup-shapes of the ruined bunkers were deeper now, and in some the grass grew tall and rank. The still, hot air was foul with the odor of stale death--of corpses carelessly buried. I searched out the deepest bunker of all. From its rain-washed bowl, rusting red, bristled the business end of Private Hu's machine gun. Kneeling beside it, I tried to picture the scene as it was that day in March. Hu, face distorted in shock, clawing at the earth that imprisoned him; Red, intent and scowling, ten feet tall in that instant before death toppled him beside me. After a while, I unfolded the news photo and spread it before me. It was the same photo that had disturbed me that day in Captain Smitt's tent, and the same old questions begged for answers. What was it, I asked myself, that had taken an epic scene and brutally reduced it to the commonplace? Where was the drama and the pathos--the naked animal experience that makes war's historical moments?

Studying the picture, I was forced to admit its fidelity in each tangible detail. Everything was there, true to place and perspective. I tucked the photo away and went down the hill, turning at the bottom for a last backward look. Something stirred my memory then, perhaps something I had read a long time ago: that it is given to some of us in moments of danger to experience life to an extreme degree.

Were not the events of march 16 like that? It figured. In my imagery a minor skirmish had exploded into the battle of battles; a marine called Red had become a giant; and a squat, ugly mound of earth had grown into Everest.

I recalled Captain Smitt's proverb of the trees and the forest, and wondered of he really knew how well he'd called the turn. I had come back to Hongch'on to find a historical moment and I had lost a ghost, instead--the ghost of an emotional experience that had never existed for anyone but me. What better place to lose it, I thought, than this alien hill where it was born and nourished?

Suddenly, I wanted companionship--to talk to someone, or only to listen. Besides, it was nearing chow time. A mobile laundry unit whirred beside the hospital, and a GI lounged in the shade nearby, watching me closely. I saddled up my gear and walked over.

"Greetings, Mac," he yawned. "Do you mind telling me what you found so damned fascinating on that hillside?"

"Souvenirs," I said. "Just shopping for souvenirs."