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Pusan Flashbacks 1950-1951

by: Andy Bisaccia


Andy Bissacia


Once upon a time, long ago, there was a far away land called Pusan where many strange things happened.  

It may sound like a time worn introduction for this collection of vignettes, but in looking back fifty-nine years ago it seems just like yesterday that these incidents occurred in my mind’s eye. I guess that’s a clue as  to how the writer is advancing into the twilight of his years, since it is told that the older you get the further back the mind reaches with clarity. Much water has gone over and under the bridge since those poignant days, but the memories are vivid and fresh. As a result, I would like to share some anecdotal events which took place around the streets of Pusan and environs that were part of my personal observations and experiences, some of which might stir your memory… if you were there. So let’s revisit in the time machine of our minds those long ago days when we were young and brash. 

Pusan became the frontline of the Korean Conflict in the early part of the war as South Korean forces were in full retreat with their backs to the Korea Straits and nowhere to go but to tread water. They dug in and waited for U.N. troops to arrive and push the North Korean army back into their own territory. Shortly after that we arrived on the scene.  

When the Whitehurst pulled into Pusan harbor, we came upon a city that had become overrun by fleeing refugees compounding the population many times over. The streets were filthy, the stench was unbearable, the streets crawling with military presence, the squalor deplorable, and the people living pretty much the way they always had with little change in their dress, customs, and culture.  Many refugees were literally living in holes dug in the ground. 

 United Nation’s troops from around the world dressed in their array of distinctive uniforms, with bands playing and banners flying, were boarding trains at the Pusan depot heading for the front lines. It was all very romantic and reminiscent of the movie: 55 Days at Peking.


The Pusan of today is a far cry from what it was like back in those days. It is now a prosperous bustling city with high rise, beautiful business district, tourist attractions, convention centers, western style type houses in tracts, and the most modern of facilities with up-to-date technologies. There are few vestiges left of the old city or way of life. Lying at the bottom of the Pusan harbor is the only wisdom tooth I ever had extracted, pulled by a dentist on the hospital ship.  

The Shoeshine boys:

One day, while strolling through the streets of Pusan in my navy dungarees, taking in the sights, smells, and sounds, I was approached by two little dirty faced street urchins carrying a shoeshine box. “Shoeshine Joe, cheap for you, yes?” I’ve always been a soft touch for a hard sell. What else could it be? Even though I knew after I got my shoes shined and took the first step, they would be completely covered with dust again.  

Standing near the middle of the street, I put my left foot up on the shoeshine box while the boy brushed off my shoes, pasted them with shoe polish, and brushed them vigorously while keeping up a constant chatter in Korean. I noticed the other young boy had unobtrusively slipped behind me. I was ready for him. While the shoeshine boy was putting the finishing touches on my shoe, snapping his rag loudly with great flare, trying to distract me, I felt, ever so slightly, something rubbing against the back of my dungarees. The boy standing behind me, using a razor blade,  was deftly cutting the threads at the bottom of my back pocket that held my wallet. He must have given a sign to his partner in crime upon which the shoeshine boy slapped my left leg signaling me to drop it and to put my other foot on the box. When I dropped my left leg, it released the tension on my wallet and it dropped freely into the waiting hand of the little thief. At that moment, I reached quickly behind and grabbed him by the wrist, catching him in the act, as he sheepishly stood there holding my wallet, while simultaneously reaching out and grabbing the shoeshine boy by the wrist. I apprehended them both in one fell swoop! There just happened to be a Shore Patrol standing in the vicinity.  So I walked the two squirming, protesting pickpockets over to him, I briefly explained what had happened while we both restrained a chuckle. He took them off to the “Monkey House” where they would be held for a few hours or days for atonement and to throw a scare into them. They would then be released back into the streets to undoubtedly ply their nefarious trade on unsuspecting prey once again, chastised but none the wiser. 

The Dedication of the UN Cemetery:

One day, I read in the Stars and Stripes there was to be a dedication ceremony to commemorate the opening of a UN Cemetery on the outskirts of Pusan. I requested permission to leave the ship to attend the affair and it was granted. I departed the ship attired in my dress blues, which I thought would be fitting for the occasion, and my ubiquitous movie camera hanging at my side. 

I was standing alongside a dusty, noisy, busy dirt road heading in the direction of the cemetery hopefully trying to hitch a ride from one of the numerous U.S. military vehicles passing by. It wasn’t long before a truck with a canvas top pulled over. The driver in army uniform asked me where I was going. I told him my destination and he told me to jump aboard. He said that was where he was heading.  

I hopped into the back of the truck and sat down on some suspicious green bundles. I noticed I was sitting on army issue sleeping bags. I began to detect the unmistakable stench of death. It dawned on me that I was sitting on bodies destined for burial in the UN Cemetery. You can imagine my chagrin when I discovered I was riding in a makeshift military hearse.  Needless to say, it was a unique experience. 

When we arrived at the cemetery, we pulled off on a side road and ended up at a large white circus size tent that turned out to be the morgue. Obviously, the dead soldiers of many countries had been interred on the grounds for quite a while preceding the dedication. I jumped from the truck and thanked the driver for the lift.  I caught a glimpse of the macabre activities going on in that tent, and headed for the nearest exit as fast as my wobbly legs would take me out into the welcome sunshine and blessed  fresh air.   

I strolled a short distance to the UN Cemetery. From the top of a rise, I looked down and saw a stunning panoramic view before my eyes which I started capturing with my trusty Revere 8mm movie camera. The cemetery was divided into sectioned off plots for each of the UN countries engaged in the conflict. Each had its flag fluttering over their section on a tall white flag pole. I only recall U.S. military personnel representing each branch of the service in full dress uniform participating in the ceremony, or there as observers, such as myself. There were also, most likely, some military and civilian dignitaries representing some of the other nations.  

The cemetery was situated adjacent to a Korean village. People from the village were lined up between the village and the cemetery dressed in their finest clothing. Women wore their long, white spotless dresses and short jackets. Many were strikingly beautiful, especially considering the harsh war time conditions under which they were living. Many older men were standing around dressed in their traditional white retired farmer’s attire with the black bird cage hat and black slipper like shoes puffing on their little opium pipes. I don’t recall any children being present. All the spectators stood very quite and reverential.  

Suddenly, a bugle call sounded and a military band struck up a Souza march as a column of U.S. Army soldiers in dress uniforms, wearing shiny chrome helmets, marched in with rifles on their shoulders and flag bearers out in front  carrying the colors and UN flag. The colorful flags of all the UN nations were snapping in the breeze over their respective allotted sections. The band and marching group ended up behind a staging area with a speaker’s podium and a line of officers sitting behind. High ranking brass delivered soul stirring eulogies under a cloudless sunlit day. It was hard to fathom that men not too far distant were being slaughtered and maimed. The ceremony was all very impressive and heart rending at the same time considering those brave hapless soldiers resting in that hallowed ground who will never again see the light of day or their loved ones so far away.  

As I swept the area with my movie camera for the sake of posterity, it struck me that I was the only navy white hat present that day. I unknowingly became an anecdotal anomaly of history.  

Do you really want that? 

One day I took the ship’s jeep and one of my mates off the ship as an armed guard to help me pick up the mail in downtown Pusan. We both had .45 automatic sidearms strapped to our waists. I pulled up the jeep to the front of the navy office and my guard jumped out to pick up the mail. While I sat waiting, I had my foot resting up on the side of the jeep. I happened to look in the side-view mirror and saw a Korean stealthily creeping up behind me hugging the jeep. He had a long wire in his hand with a hook bent on the end. I reached down very slowly, undid the flap on my holster, eased out the .45 and cocked it on the side of the holster with one hand. At that moment, the highway robber, with the wire, hooked the zipper tab on my little black navy wallet sticking part way out of my pocket and was gingerly extracting it. I pulled out my .45, spun around, pressing the cold muzzle of my gun against his forehead, and in a laconic Clint Eastwood moment said, ”Do you really want that?” The wallet was dangling on the end of the wire flopping up and down like a hooked fish, as the “fisherman” stood frozen in his tracks nervously jiggling the wire. He was turned over to an MP, and taken off of to the Monkey House where he would have plenty of time to be remorseful and to practice his angling skills.  

Shootout at the Pusan Corral: 

We had an officer on our ship that was a legend in his own mind. He pictured himself being George Patton or Wild Bill Hickok, and strutted around on watch with a pearl handled six shooter strapped to his waist.  

One night, I was standing on watch with him on the quarter deck in Pusan Harbor. We were tied up to the dock facing a prisoner of war camp about a hundred yards in the front of the ship. A long latrine hung over a seawall. A constant cascade of human excrement plunged into the water. The men on the ship liked to jest about how our ship stayed afloat on coffee grounds and turds. There was a modicum of truth in that assumption. Well, there was a fence with barbed wire along the top surrounding the compound. There were spotlights at intervals shining down into the yard.  We observed what appeared to be a prisoner clambering to get over the barbed wire. The officer saw a rare opportunity to whip out his six gun and put his marksmanship skills to the test. He started shooting at the escapee who got over the fence and dropped to the ground out of sight. Was he wounded, captured, unscathed, or dead? That question was promptly answered when a huge, burly, outraged army man came stomping across the gangplank shouting at the top of his lungs, “Who is the son-of- a- bitch shooting at me? I’d like to take that piece and shove it down his@#$%^@#$%^& throat!” Needless to say, the hapless gun slinger was quick to explain the circumstances of his errant ways and apologize for any discomfort he might have caused. As it turned out, the soldier was a guard at the prisoner of war compound testing the integrity of its security.  

The horrors of war: 

We heard about a baseball game going to be played next to the hospital ship tied up at the dock nearby. A couple of my shipmates and me decided to stroll on over and check it out.  It turned out to be a game between two ships slugging it out for honor and glory. Everyone was having a good time cheering on their teams and whooping it up as you would expect at a ball game.  

Suddenly, a chilling hush came over the crowd, and the game came to an abrupt standstill as all eyes turned toward the ship. Some wounded soldiers caked with grime and blood were being ushered up the gangway, and then a sight took place that will be forever seared into our memories. From the back of an ambulance, several medics were removing a stump of a man still unbelievably alive. We were all aghast: he had no arms or legs! Tourniquets had been applied to stop the bleeding. His white naked body appeared to be anything but human. The medics fastened his body into a sling, and we all gazed in rapt horror as what was left of his pitiful body being raised up the side of the ship and through a hatch that was open to receive him into its embrace. The game resumed. Have you ever sat through a ball game with the sound turned off? 


Someone on the ship informed me that there was a laundry across town that I ought to go check out and get some pictures.  Harry Bongiorni and I took off with our trusty movie cameras and located the PUKEUM LAUNDRY. 

A standing joke on the ship was that since we had so much time on our hands that we ought to try and improve our minds by taking some courses at PUSAN U. 

A day away from the stench and the war: 

Harry and I had befriended a young personable Korean interpreter in some of our wanderings around Pusan. One Sunday, he invited us to accompany him to a beach resort, of sorts, just out of Pusan. He said it’s a place that only the locals knew about, and where they go as a respite to escape the realities of war. How could we refuse that offer?  

Dressed in dungarees, sporting our movie cameras and some fancy pink gift tins of Almond Rocca we got from the ship’ service, we headed out with our Korean guide and translator on a new adventure.

We were pleasantly surprised to find a serenely beautiful beach side recreational area. There were little terraced areas scattered about at different levels that families were occupying as they were enjoying their Sunday picnic.  At each of these sites, little low round tables contained a vase with flowers and an assortment of condiments sitting neatly in the center. The people were all dressed in their spotlessly clean Sunday best. There were several pretty young ladies who were attired in beautiful immaculate long dresses. With no other attentions than to get acquainted with some of these exotic, winsome young lassies, Harry offered tins of Almond Rocca, and was summarily rejected, good naturedly, by their girlish giggles. Harry feigned, broken hearted, diving into the sea to end it all. No doubt, Harry was quite the would be lothario and had a way with women.  I have it all in color on movie film.   

There was a group of about a dozen young, dark skinned, naked boys playing in a half swamped boat from which came peals of boyish laughter, while jumping in and out of the boat, rocking it,  and bailing frantically to keep it from sinking.  

There were various food stands where native cuisine and snacks could be purchased.  

Some young men were having a game of soccer. Several boys were flying a variety of colorful kites. Other boys were throwing rocks at cans on posts with deadly accuracy. Rock throwing was a sport excelled in by Koreans of all ages. On occasion, one village would line up against another and throw rocks at each other to settle a difference, or just because they didn’t like each other.  

There was a simple little archery range where, for a few Won, you could shoot primitive bows and arrows at various targets. Harry and I tried our hand at this but quickly discovered we were novices compared to the skills of the natives. Koreans have proven they are some of the best archers in the world at the Olympics.  

Whatever we did that day was good naturedly received by the Koreans and, they seemed pleasingly amused by our presence and antics.  

Just a few minutes away from Pusan, we discovered a pocket of serenity shut off from a bloody war and suffering all around us. We could just as well have been at Coney Island on that fine day.  

Rising above it all: 

Roy Hasty and I got our heads together one day and decided we needed to get out of town and try to rise above the honey bucket stench for a breath of fresh air. The only place to get away from it all would be the mountain that loomed above Pusan. We asked Jimmie Pon Son See, the savvy little war orphan who was the ship’s mascot, if he would like to string along and be our guide. He was delighted, so off we went on a new adventure.

We walked through dusty streets and alley ways reeking with the stench of garlic, fish, and the forever present honey bucket essence of putrescence. A couple of times we almost got drenched by people throwing the contents of their honey bucket chamber pots out the door onto the street, to hell with the unsuspecting passerby.  Mercifully, we finally arrived at the bottom of the mountain and started our ascent.  

As we climbed the winding steep trail,  we passed by ancient temples and summer houses, greeted cordially by priests and common folk sitting and lying about enjoying their surroundings and the fresh air of a sunlit mountain looking down on a cloud of miasma below under which laid the city of Pusan. We could also spot the Whitehurst enveloped in a fog of suspicious particulates.  

Without incident, we finally reached the summit where it was cold and invigorating. We lit up our briars and took in the sights down below where we could see the harbor and the ships as well as a panoramic view of Pusan and its environs. We despaired to think that in a few minutes we would have to descend back down into a bowl of fetid effluvium.  

As we were striding back down the mountain trail, Jimmy was leading the way, when he suddenly turned and held up his hand signaling us to stop. Without calling attention to us, he told us that there were two men standing next to the trail about a hundred yards ahead.  He said he recognized them to be North Korean communists bent on waylaying us and doing us harm. We knew they were not uncommon in the area, and we were warned to be aware of them. He noticed one of them had hidden a knife behind his back. He instructed us to get a couple hands of sand and when we got to them to throw it in their faces and to take off running down the mountain. It must have worked as planned because fifty-nine years later I’m writing about it. If it hadn’t been for the perspicacity of Jimmy Pon Son See the outcome would have been decidedly deadly.

 Andy Bisaccia has contributed several  stories to the Whitehurst Web site:
 Pusan Flashbacks is the most recent. Other stories by Andy: Escapades of Andy and Harry in Kyushu, The Day I Borrowed the Commandant's Limo, The Navy Way, The Great Engine Heist, Toothache, and a Great deal of material on "Jimmy" Pon Sun See, the Korean boy adopted by the Whitehurst crew in Pusan. You can learn more about Andy at this link.
Andy's Bio Sketch

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