One day in 1952, Frank Johnston, a young man from the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, arrived in Korea. He arrived there via Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, where he’d gone through basic training, had turned down the dubious honor of being Soldier of the Month, and had filled out a questionnaire about what he’d done in civilian life. Among other thing, he’d been a mechanic and he knew a thing or two about engines and motors. That knowledge got him into what was then called the 556th Signal Radio Relay Company, and to the top of a mountain in Korea.
He vividly remembers the voyage across the not-too-Pacific Ocean. Fortunately, or unfortunately, as the case might have been, he had good sea legs. He’d spent a lot of his preschool years on the tugboat of his dad who was the harbormaster of New York City’s Erie Basin, so seasickness wasn’t a problem. His older brother had advised him to be sure to take a top bunk near a ventilator opening, and to take his shoes up with him into bed at night. Good advice, as it turned out. It was a very rough crossing and guards made sure no soldier went out on deck. The vast majority of the guys on the transport go very, very sick. Trashcans were soon brimful of the results. The regular hands on the ship noticed that Frank was among the healthy, and so he was dragooned into dragging trashcans full of “upchuck” up on deck to empty them overboard in high seas. They tossed a few trashcans, contents and all overboard before the crew realized what was happening and made them tie the cans to the railing. The healthy guys were on trashcan duty and KP, but they got to eat whatever they wanted, including steak.
The northern and eastern parts of Korea are fairly mountainous, much like our Appalachians, and they posed problems for effective communications – thus the Radio Relay teams. Up on the mountain, Frank was part of a team of nine who, assisted by men of the Republic of Korea Army, known as the ROKs, maintained the generators and equipment needed to transmit information between corps headquarters and the front lines. There was no road up the mountain. Everything, including the generators, cans of fuel, food, and other supplies came up on the backs of the ROKs. At one time they even carried Frank up the mountain after he’d had a dose of a potent pain killer for dental surgery at base camp.
The winters on the mountain were brutal. Everything froze. Surrounding it with the fuel and food to be kept at a useable temperature, they had a stove glowing red hot in the main tent. Sitting around that stove, they roasted their chests and froze their backs. It was always cold up on the mountain. When headquarters called for the return of winter clothing and bedding in the spring, the savvy guys failed to comply.
The mountain wasn’t an easy posting. Among other “interesting” incidents, there was the time when rats became a problem at the base of the mountain, so the whole base was fired to kill the rats. It only succeeded in driving the rats up to the top of the mountain, providing excellent target practice for the overrun relay team.
Frank got to travel a bit around the country. There was the time he went to visit a buddy he’d met in basic. The guy was a forward observer, and Frank got pinned down with him under enemy fire for several days. Occasionally, he’d travel to the coast and bring back fresh seafood, especially octopus, for the ROKs. They declared Frank to be “Number Huckin’ One!”
On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., Frank got to visit the Korean War Veterans Memorial. It happened to be raining that day. Frank said that the men in the squad were carrying all the different arms and equipment appropriate to the time, and were dressed for the rain and gloom of “The “Forgotten War.”