Mark Ellis looks back, gratefully, on his father’s service.
It has been 60 years this Veteran’s Day since my father got notice of my birth by way of a Western Union telegram delivered to the front line on a ridge of frozen hills in Korea. He’d been drafted and sent to fight shortly after the People’s Republic of China entered the conflict and surprised U.S. forces at the infamous Battle of the Chosin Reservoir. His job was to park himself and his Browning Automatic Rifle and watch and wait from the sand-bagged rim of an underground bunker.
For one year, 1951, the Army 224th Infantry Regiment moved him around that front, sending him on patrols, into stubble fields with mine detectors, and now and then back to the base at Pusan for some R&R.
By the time he found his way back to where my mother was waiting at her parent’s home in Oakland, California with his outsize duffle bag, I was one year old. Both Mom and Dad swear that my first reaction to this gangly soldier’s return was to crawl over and bite him on the leg. I had no idea how lucky I was; thousands of children whose fathers had fought what is often called “The Forgotten War” never saw their fathers again.
A few years later, when I was old enough to rummage around in the basement, I found that musty duffle bag and pulled its contents out onto the floor. There was a mess kit with a hard clamp to keep the sides together. A pair of high-laced combat boots, which I immediately tried on and clomped clumsily around in. There were medals: a pewter-colored sharpshooter’s rifle, two cannons crossed in brass for gunnery, and some covered in colorful fabric with totemic symbols denoting participation in one campaign, mastery of one wartime skill or another. I pinned them on my shirt.
One of the things the soldiers on combat duty around my father carried was cameras. There were scores of photos in a frayed scrapbook in the duffle bag. All in black and white, they depicted the remote outposts, and the men who ate K-rations, laid down suppressing fire, and hunkered down under nighttime phosphorus bombs which illuminated the landscape of broken twigs and rutted tank tracks in the snowy crust. Men—including my father—who spent 1951 holding the line, occasionally bugging out to the rear, and often advancing toward the bellicose ridges on the North Korean side.
There were other, more graphic photos, which I was shocked to find. Photos of the enemy dead, unburied, twisted in decay, fallen on backdrops of autumn leaves, slumped against sniper perches. I took one to show my mother, and she snatched it out of my hand.
There are three ways in which my father shares his experience of the Korean War. His best memories are the ones about his fellow soldiers. He becomes animated when he talks about the laughs they had, and the bonds they formed. Many of those men would become his best friends after discharge, and long nights were spent around kitchen tables recalling the constant complaints and resigned jokes about the hurry-and-wait exigencies of being “regular Army.”
The monumental film The Best Years of Our Lives captures this great irony, the strong positive emotions among men and women who have shared battle experience, the enhanced camaraderie which crystallizes in the fog of war, the sense that life was never more vivid
The second way my father shares his wartime memories is more reticent. Much is left unsaid. He’s not one for bravado, refuses to dramatize or render heroic those times when the bullets flew, when men in his platoon were wounded, when Chinese and North Korean attacks were repelled, but not without cost. He grows quiet when asked about the enemy he may have killed with his fast-firing BAR.
Finally, there are the night fears. The bad dreams. The sweat-soaked awakenings, always in the wee hours, something Mom says never happened in the year they spent as young marrieds before Dad answered President Truman’s call to arms. He won’t talk about this either, just shakes his head as if this is a part of his memory that is beyond his control. But he’ll let Mom tell about how after his return from Korea he begin having recurring nightmares, begin crying out and sitting up in bed, alarming her.
Maynard Clayton Ellis, age 83, started as a hardscrabble Nebraska-born American kid who headed west looking for a job and a future, and found himself in a war. He rose to the rank of corporal, and came home in one piece. But for 60 years now whatever haunts his sleep from that war endures.
Thank you for your service, Dad.