THE KEENER

By Terry Meagher

I have no idea what the generals, historians and statisticians have said about that terrible spring night on Hill 187 in Korea. Frankly I'm not interested. My story is the one told in the barracks and canteens by the men who were there, in the forgotten war. It is the story of old friends, brave lieutenants and the men who stood guard on lonely hills.

Those of us in the ranks were mostly humble folk who came out of fishing villages, wheat fields and smoke-stack towns, away from the long unemployment lines and into the recruiting offices.

When I left home in the winter of 1952, my mother cried and told me to be careful. But I was too young to listen and in a few days her admonitions were forgotten. My sister's advice, though greeted with annoyance, lingered much longer: "Don't look up at the skyscrapers in the city or they'll think you're a hick."

The army sent me to Camp Wainwright to prepare for war. Our platoon commander Lieut. Banton, was three or four years older than my 18 years. A student at Ottawa's Carleton University, he had joined the regular army hoping to lead a platoon in Korea.

Known as a "keener," Lieut. Banton always wanted our brass shined brighter and our boots polished better than the soldiers in other platoons. Though we hated spit and polish we seldom grumbled against him, probably because he didn't spare himself. Even during a break in a long, hot march he stood on top of the hill scanning the countryside through binoculars. He would know every move of every platoon in the battalion.

After what seemed like a long time, he walked down the hill and sat among us. He told us about his father who had been decorated in WW II. No longer the gung-ho lieutenant, he seemed more like a big brother. The older boy we all admired was taking us into his confidence. Suddenly he said: "I'm going to win the Victoria Cross in Korea."

We were surprised. You had to have dignity to make a statement like that, even if you were an officer. A private like me would have been hooted out of the wet canteen if he even hinted at dreams of glory. Nobody said anything until Lieut. Banton changed the subject.

In the late summer of '52, I left Camp Wainwright as a reinforcement for the 1st Bn., Royal Canadian Regt., in Korea. I didn't meet him again until the following March when the 3rd Bn. relieved the lst. A member of Charlie Co., he still had the type of clean complexion my mother admired—as though he had spent a good deal of time in a barber's chair with hot compresses on his face. I think he had played football although he didn't have the bulk to grind people on the line; he was more likely a half­back or a wide receiver—trim and lithe at 80 kg.

"Do you want to transfer to Charlie Company?" he asked me. "It'll be the same platoon as in Wainwright."

I didn't know what to make of it but I suspected he was dreaming of glory. In me he saw the boy who had admired the United States Marines on their retreat from the Chosin Reservoir and he thought somehow I would figure in his Victoria Cross.

He saw me hesitate and said: "It'll be all right. I can arrange the transfer."  But it wasn't that. I had made too many friends in Able Co., too much had happened.

"The offer's open," he said. "Anytime."  I kicked the ridge of mud on the road, shifting the rifle on my shoulder to hide my discomfort.

"Thanks," I said.

Then I turned and ran to catch up with my platoon. That was the last time I spoke to him.

To pass the time in reserve, we played softball on the rice paddies. The games weren't much even by small-town standards, with sandbags for bases and a triangle of chewed-up wood for home plate. Stones abounded, and would sometimes send a well-hit grounder sharply into the face of a fielder.

My platoon had been baptized by fire—some of us on the Hook, a few on Hill 355. Cockier than we should have been, we treated the new men in one platoon shabbily. On the ball diamond we not only gleefully beat them, we rubbed their noses in their greenness.

"You've still got Canadian water in your water bottle," we'd shout across the field. When one of them argued a call with the umpire we cried: "Recruit! Recruit!"

One night our razzing almost got us charged with insubordination. Their lieutenant, G.B. Maynell, was the only man above the rank of corporal who ever played or even showed up and every night he was over by third base coaching them and needling us. One night while Lieut. Maynell was talking it up someone shouted demeaningly: "Hey, boy-san, where did you learn to coach?"

When our second baseman shouted: "Ninety-day wonder!" the game stopped. We had gone too far. In the eerie stillness we became aware suddenly of the ominous clatter of machine-guns on the front line several kilometres away. We watched him weigh the situation, struggle with it. Then to everyone's relief he looked at the batter and shouted: "C'mon hit one through the hole."

That night was the only time they beat us and afterwards we could hear them singing:

"A young Canuck soldier to Tokyo on leave 
Was stopped by a provost, oh pardon me please,
There's blood on your tunic, there's blood on your sleeve,
I'll just have to cancel your seven-day leave... "

They somehow didn't have the right to sing that song—not yet. But we knew their looie was just trying to make them into the best platoon in the battalion just as Lieut. Banton would be doing. Only there was a catch: They would never know until they came under fire who would hold and who would bug out. So we listened in our tent knowing and resenting. How petty we were and how tragic it all seems now.

Not long after, we loaded everything we had on to our backs, climbed into trucks and headed north to the front.

I don't think we ever got tired of the same old clichés. Every once in a while someone would ask: "Is this trip necessary?"

I remember the moment we disembarked as clearly as yesterday. I remember soldiers from another company standing along the side of the road and in the ditches—dark, helmeted figures, disembodied, brooding. I remember the shadows of fear on their faces. Nobody asked if the trip was necessary any more. Someone made a wisecrack and someone else told him to shut up.

We moved up the road until we joined the rest of Able Co. Then the column stuttered forward, wound its way around the hills in close ack ack formation—a metre between each man.

Going up Hill 187, the march turned into a trot, then a scramble. Burdened by their equipment and unable to keep up several men fell behind and didn't find their way to our positions until morning. In the crawl trenches our fear of getting lost became greater than our fear of the Chinese. Helmets clanged against the steel pickets holding overhead camouflage netting in place. Ahead, a rifle tangled in it and a soldier stumbled and swore. Tense, sweating and exhausted we staggered into the slit trenches and unbuckled our equipment.

-continued on page two


Home

Story Archives