26 December 2000


Fifty years ago this week, I spent a white Christmas in Korea along with thousands of other GIs. We weren't skiing at some fancy resort but trying to stop hordes of Chinese from steamrolling south. Mao's master plan was the destruction of all American forces that were trying to save South Korea from a communist takeover. So his army wasn't heading south for sun or fun.

No way could Yuletide 1950 be described as a jolly good time. We were on the run with a Chinese juggernaut pummeling us night and day, coming at us with mass attacks that Yankee firepower couldn't stop. Put simply, they had more troops than we had bullets.

Then there was the 20-below-zero weather. Trying to beat the elements was a battle in itself. It was so bitterly cold that if you didn't constantly move your fingers and feet, they turned black and you lost them.

Not only had our generals failed to understand the enemy's intentions, they hadn't provided their grunts with the basics. Like Americans who fought at Valley Forge 172 years before, ammo, winter gear and food were almost nonexistent up at the forward edge. We lived off the land and did a lot of praying. It was brutal.

I was a scout squad leader in the 25th Recon. Our company's job was to slow the enemy down and deceive him as to where our front really was. Day after day we swapped terrain for time, fighting rear-guard actions and praying that a panicky engineer wouldn't blow a bridge we'd need to dart across at the last possible minute.

The day before Christmas, our prayers went unanswered. As we were pulling out of Seoul, a 30-man platoon from our company was trapped and destroyed.

On Christmas Day, my own platoon -- the Chinese hot on our heels -- barely made it across the Han River. As soon as the last Recon vehicle got over, it was goodbye bridge -- along with a gaggle of closely pursuing Chinese. We were told to outpost the south bank of the river while the 25th Division's main body beat feet south to dig in a line that would stop the Reds.

I had a full squad. A few weeks before, four new replacements -- Kenneth Shelton, Jimmy Roberts, Chester Yasui and Norato DeSa -- reported in. They were 17-year-old Polynesian boys, fresh out of Basic Training and ready to boogie in a deadly dance where one mistake could put you in a body bag.

I had three problems with my islanders: They were uniquely Hawaiian gung-ho; 75 degrees was cold to them; and like 17-year-old boys everywhere, they were constantly hungry.

Old Army discipline restrained the Hawaiian go-for-broke fire in their bellies, and another log on the fire helped prevent them from turning blue, but food was something even the most imaginative line sergeant couldn't come close to solving that Christmas Day. That's until a little unauthorized recon took me to a village. A burst from my automatic weapon and we were soon plucking, gutting and cooking chicken over an open fire. We ate them unseasoned and undercooked, spitting out .30-caliber slugs as we chowed down. The islanders said our Christmas dinner tasted better than a Don Ho luau.

These four city boys were into surfing, not slipping through the bush. But what made them all so tough and good-to-go -- what saved their hides -- was the hard training and stern discipline they got in Hawaii at the hands of old Army noncoms. Without that training and discipline, they would not have survived their first day on the line.

In the past six months I've talked to thousands of trainees, their Drill Sergeants and the leaders who receive these Army Basic Training graduates. From my observations at the training camps and from what I hear about working with the today's soft kids, we'd never be able to repeat how we survived that winter and beat back the Chinese by spring.

All agree that today's recruits could be made as hard physically and mentally as my wonderful Hawaiians. But that's only if the Army brass get with the program and remember that preparing for war is about survival of the fittest -- not mollycoddling Generation "What's In It for Me."