The only time Fred Schultz so much as felt menaced in his 15-month stint as an Air Force radio operator in the Korean War was during a torch-lit May Day demonstration outside his fence-protected base in 1953.
“It was like the scene in the old movie 'Gunga Din,' where they marched around the temple,” the East Chicago Harbor native said of what presumably was a communist sympathizer rally at the Hong Song airfield some 40 miles south of Seoul.
Schultz's Korean consisted of a few phrases, so whatever message the imposing spectacle was meant to convey to President Syngman Rhee and his U.S. allies was lost on him.
The demonstrators didn't typify the people Schultz met in the waning months of a war that split the nation into communist North and democratic South, at the 38th Parallel.
He and his fellow radio operators, who transmitted mostly condensed weather reports, lived in Quonset huts that had no running water, little electricity other than what a generator could provide and only pot belly stoves for heat. Schultz's only opportunity to take a shower came during a week's R&R in Japan.
Their predecessors had engaged locals to help tidy up, and those young people who were helping support their families during a time of war-ravaged deprivation were his acquaintances, he said.
The servicemen paid a “houseboy” $2 a month to sweep, cook and hook them up with a mama-san to launder their clothes. Young girls in pigtails worked in the mess hall, said Schultz, of Munster.
Over time, the Koreans came to see the latest batch of Americans were people who could be trusted. That wasn't always the case with everyone who cycled through the base.
“There evidently were a lot of good GIs they came into contact with,” Schultz said of the industrious, good-natured Koreans.
If they didn't share an identical notion of democracy, the Koreans “definitely liked what we had and hoped they could get some of that,” Schultz said.
He developed a relationship with the houseboy (Jo-dung-soo phonetically), who after the war ended never requested food or money from Schultz, but instead implored his American friend to send him books.
However, cultural rifts were never more evident than on a Thanksgiving Day when base personnel were treated to a meal of pork chops in the mess hall. The master sergeant in charge happened to spy one of Korean cooks slip some pork chops into her garments.
He notified the Republic of Korea police as he had been instructed. After they arrived, they hustled the cook behind the mess hall, tied her hands behind her back, made her kneel and executed her with a single shot.
“He (the master sergeant) would have given her the pork chops if she'd asked,” said Schultz, who shared his compatriot's remorse over the killing.
That South Korean slaying by ROK allies was the only casualty of the war Schultz saw. The only fighting he saw was between fellow servicemen at a dance hall.
By August, the war had ended, and the town was no longer off limits. Schultz, the son of a German immigrant mill worker and mother of Polish descent, discovered he had soul mates who loved American jazz and could jitterbug with him. They would play records and talk as best they could given the language barrier.
Looking back, Schultz said that while the U.S. can no longer be policeman to the world, Korea was a different situation.
“We did them a big favor (saving them from communism),” he said, noting South Korea's thriving capitalist economy now.
If he needed any reminder of how much of an industrial powerhouse South Korea has become, he got one right before he retired 20 years ago from what had once been Youngstown Steel.
“Samsung Steel bought the finishing floor part (of the plant),” he said. “So after we sold that to South Korea, I tried to buy that stock, but they wouldn't sell Samsung over the counter to us.”