Potent Potables on the Parallel

by
Don Randall
 

There are, it appears, different and urgent winds blowing in the Canadian armed forces concerning the consumption of alcohol. Problems associated with heavy drinking apparently now account for 80 per cent of the costs the Defence department incurs due to "maladaptive lifestyles." Consequently, new rules now ban Happy Hours and drinking contests in military clubs and messes. Do you remember chug-lug and boat races? Further, counseling is available and required for identified problem drinkers and, in general, the role of alcohol in the social life of the armed forces is being deliberately de-emphasized.

Who would disagree with this enlightened policy? It certainly is consistent with the messages the public has been saturated with for the past few years. The Drinker has been placed on guard and is very familiar with the hazards present in breathalyzer tests and the R.I.D.E. program. It is not too surprising that the armed forces have gone to a prudent position and, perhaps years ago, we should have noticed the handwriting on the wall when the navy discontinued a daily issue of the sailor's beloved rum ration.

It is difficult, if not impossible, for many of the Korea vets to think of their general experiences in the war in terms which are unrelated to alcohol. Our service was almost in a contest of its use (and abuse). In my unit, non-drinkers were rare and suspected of being possessed of other unsociable habits. Any officer would tell you that one of the common truths of military life was that "the men need to have their beer to keep them happy." The opportunities and the supplies seemed to be unlimited, although service in the Far East did require flexibility concerning choice.  

Recollections of events even before the government paid our way to the Far East have an alcoholic connection. How else could one have endured the stupefying rail trips across Canada without a "mickey" or a few beers gained after a quick run to pick them up during a brief stop. When the men were moving as part of a strictly supervised draft on a troop train these antics were not possible without risk. I remember one such dry trip from Wainwright to Seattle. Wainwright! What else was there to do in that camp but hit the "wets" and, sitting with buddies, line up the bottles at a table, six-foot, folding, while speculating what was in store for us across the Pacific. Even in the heart of downtown Wainwright, thirsty soldiers often lined up in the street to await admittance to the scarce watering holes.  

The vets who had the Fort Lewis experience fondly remember consorting with the natives during lively weekends in Tacoma, Seattle or Yakima and then making do with the suds from the PX until the next weekend pass was due or wangled.  

On the Marina Adder, Marine Lynce, Private Joe Martinez or other troop transports there wasn't much booze available that I was aware of. When you think of it, we Canadians were trusted with alcohol to a greater extent than were American soldiers. Maybe this had something to do with the great numbers of draftees in the U.S. Army during the Korean War.  

Passing through Japan added breadth to our alcoholic vocabularies; Asahi and Nippon beer, Sake and Akadama wine and, for the daring, Suntory whiskey. You might recall the numerous bars thoughtfully located near the Hiro Barracks gate (beer, one hundred Yen a bottle) or the more sophisticated versions in Kure. One of the images I retain was received when marching to Hiro Barracks after arrival on the train from Yokohama Port. I believe it was mid-morning and a very inebriated Australian private was cheering on the Canadians as he tottered down the sidewalk dragging an enormous bottle of Saki, which was all tied up in curious ropework. In our brief stay in Hiro on the way home, my "tent" was known to send the houseboy crawling under the wire fence to a nearby bar to fetch us a basket full of Akadama bottles and that before breakfast!

In Korea, a different ball game was played. In deference to the rusty and heavily chlorinated water which was jerry-canned to us, a daily beer issue was authorized by someone probably a kind and practical medical officer. Wasn't it two quarts a day at twenty cents script each? That sweet-tasting Japanese beer travelled well, with each bottle in its rice straw jacket and packed in a wooden box. Those beer boxes came in handy too.  

Those of us who, against orders, tried the Korean home-made spirits kept in a crock in farmhouse kitchens will not even yet forget its fragrance, taste and kick. Surely some of you have experienced unsteadiness and perhaps a fall into a moonlit rice paddy (or worse) after a night foray into the boondocks!  

There was great rejoicing when a small amount (two bottles per man?) was issued to the Canadians courtesy of Labatt's in commemoration of fifty years of brewing. At times, we had to make do with English brew. I remember a Simmonds going well with a Capstan or a Lucky.  

British and Canadian officers and NCOs had access to a ration of liquor at a very reasonable price. I think Gordon's Gin was ninety cents a bottle. Some small fortunes were made, for those times, for "bootlegging" to our American allies at an outrageous mark-up. I affirm that I was in no way involved but can now serve as an informed observer.  

Rum in a water bottle on a freezing day, Gordon's Gin mixed with Rose's Lime Cordial or Orange Squash in a mess tin, and barely cool Asahi recovered from the pits we used to dig under tent floors are typical of our liquid diversions in Korea. Sometimes a bottle made it all the way from Canada and I recall receiving an undamaged 26'er of Teachers from a relative.  

On R&R in Tokyo the troops wasted as little time as possible. After landing at Tachikawa, then going through the motions at Ebisu Leave Centre, most fled by cab in the direction of Shinjuku. Well, what did YOU do then, take in the museums? The flight back to Kimpo airfield near Seoul was bearable provided one partied as late as possible into the last leave day.  

At our KVA conventions, reunions and unit meeting, I have noticed that the vets haven't changed their habits too much, except in degree. They are more cautious and reserved, befitting their age, and most have profited considerably from life's lessons in the last thirty-odd years.  

What of the conduct of military operations in the future and the questions about alcohol which naturally rise? I can't really imagine the regimental medical officer laying on a ration of a non-alcoholic restorative drink for all ranks after the unit has for a few days experienced a nasty bit of weather. Will there be a Coca-Cola issue in hot climates? How will the men relax? Perhaps they will belly up to the canteen bar with, "I'll have Seven-Up on the rocks" and, "Make mine apple juice!" If there are future wars and the veterans have reunions, will they raise their glasses of soft drinks on high to toast fallen comrades?  

Please do not take me too seriously in this little look at the way we were. No offence is intended. Because of the war, the free and easy attitudes prevalent regarding alcohol in the military and the uncertainty of our lives in those times, we acted accordingly.  

When we now look around ourselves at common lifestyles in the eighties, we were not really so bad, were we?  

 Reproduced courtesy of Esprit de Corps Magazine

 

Don Randall was a teacher, an author, a Korean War veteran and served as National President of the Korea Veterans Association of Canada.  He died on 15 November 2000 .  His novel, Korean Affair was published posthumously in 2003.

 

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