By Bill Derby, Publisher
(North Korea has been headlined in the news this past year. US Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis recently visited Panmunjom and with Veteran’s Day this weekend, I am writing about a brief experience I had while stationed near the DMZ and Panmunjom.)
Just off the phone, Sergeant Wills yelled, “We have permission to visit Panmunjom in two days. Get ready!”
Our Bullseye newspaper staff was excited to hear that news and a little apprehensive at the same time since soldiers from the 2nd Infantry Division patrolling the DMZ had been shot at on a regular basis with a couple of GI’s killed each week. That sad news was ‘lost in space’ since hundreds of American military were being killed in Vietnam weekly in 1967. During 1967 and 1968 there were more incidents of North Korean agents killing South Koreans and Americans than any time since the war.
I was stationed at I Corps Headquarters at Camp Red Cloud in Uijeongbu (pronounced “Wee-jon-boo”), a little over 30 miles from Panmunjom. We published a weekly newspaper for the headquarters troops. As a staff photographer and news writer I was selected to go on the trip and volunteered to drive one of our office jeeps. We were excited to be doing a story on the historic DMZ.
The next day we headed north with our jeep’s windshield down since it was blistering hot. Our other photographer, Greg Iger, and I rode together bouncing down the dusty back road following the signs.
When we approached an MP check point we were required to sign in with our unit names and identification in case we were shot. Still about 10 miles from Panmunjom, the burley MP suggested we put our jeep’s windshield up since it was a practice of infiltrating North Koreans to string piano wire across the road to decapitate jeep drivers with their windshields down. These MP’s didn’t joke around. Even today, “visitors are required to sign a release that asks them to accept responsibility for “injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.”
We soon arrived following closely behind our news editor and information officer in another jeep. We were briefed by the MP’s on duty what we could do and not do but did have enough freedom to get some great photos and even a few of the North Korean guards.
We visited the buildings where the Korean War Armistice was signed and where both North Koreans and American military discussions still take place in the blue buildings. Half the table sits in North Korea and the other half in South Korea. It’s referred to as the Military Demarcation Line and according to available information, is considered one of the last vestiges of the Cold War.
Our American MP’s were the sharpest I had ever seen, standing tall, no smiles, looking serious. However, they were happy to answer our questions. They pointed out a North Korean village a few miles away that looked very impressive with nice buildings. The MP commented, “It’s all fake, made to look like an up-scale community. Nobody lives there. It’s all for show.”
Greg and I snapped a number of photos. I took a photo of two North Korean guards. Greg walked up to one and got a close-up. The North Korean yelled “Cutta’” which meant, get your fanny out of here. The North Korean guards were the tallest they could find in their military so our guys would not tower over them. South Korea had built a Peace Pagoda building that infuriated the North Koreans who later built a taller building even adding an additional third floor years later when South Korea built a new Peace Pagoda.
After a couple of hours looking at un-happy, mean looking North Koreans we started back. Greg was driving us back and drove slowly by a North Korean guard shack. I took his picture and suddenly the guard picked up a rock and threw it at our jeep. Sergeant Wills said if I had caught him in the act they would have used it during Panmunjom discussions. That was my close encounter with the enemy.
About 500 yards from the DMZ, we noticed a squad of 2nd Infantry Division soldiers climbing back onto the road in front of us. They had been trudging in waist-deep water on patrol. We knew then those guys were in harm’s way. Their M-14’s were loaded. A couple of them waved and we waved back. I was impressed and it made me feel proud these guys were on our side. We drove slowly back to the DMZ MP station to check out.
Two months after I had rotated back to the states, Greg sent me a copy of the Bullseye with his photos of a number of dead North Korean infiltrators in the back of a truck. They were part of a 31-man team sent to kill the president of South Korea. It was a close call but it failed. Three Americans were killed and three wounded along with 26 South Koreans killed and 66 wounded.
The North Korean military are still at it with Kim Jong-un’s missile madness.
As any military person who has served overseas knows, there is no feeling on earth like the one when your homecoming jet touches wheels down on American soil.