Some time ago I was asked to write about the one most memorable person I have ever met in my life. I can't even tell you his name. He was about 14 years old, he wore the dark green garb of a Chinese Communist Soldier, and I had to kill him.
It was during the three weeks I had to spend with the Marines in Korea very late during the hostilities between the North and the South. I wasn't given a weapon because I was an Air Force Photographer and the Marines didn't want me running around with a gun. They figured I might kill someone by accident. I wound up with a Speed Graphic Camera.
On one especially cold and dismal night I was assigned to a colored Staff Sargent with a sub-machine gun. I was told to go forward a little bit, get into a trench and wait there with the Sargent until daylight. If there was any kind of trouble, the Sargent had his sub machine gun and he would protect me. Being in a combat situation without a weapon is scary enough, but to be without a weapon and in the dark, made the situation even more terrifying.
My life was completely in the hands of the Sargent and I didn't even know his name. It was fairly obvious the Sargent was not exactly happy about having to protect an Air Force Photographer. He grumbled and griped about it all the way up to the spot we supposed to occupy for the night. His attitude toward me was positively hostile.
There was a good cloud cover that night and it was so cold I was shivering in spite of the heavy field jacket they had given me. There was a very light rain coming down which froze to the outside of the jacket and it made an odd crunching noise every time I moved.
The Sargent had told me to remain where I was and not make a sound until he got back. He then vanished into the inky black of that awful night.
I guess I had been there in the trench, sitting in a small puddle of water for about two hours, it was hard to tell as I couldn't see my watch in the dark, when there was a thump and a shuffling noise from someplace down the trench. Figuring the Sargent might not remember exactly where I was, I whispered, "Hey Sarge. I'm over here."
There was more shuffling but no reply. I called out again a little louder, "I'm right here in front of you."
Again no reply. I began to get nervous. I knew we were not far from the Chinese lines but the Sargent had assured me there was no danger. I called out again, "I'm right here where you left me."
There was no reply but what ever was making the noise was very close by now. I felt rather than saw what ever it was, was there, just beyond my reach. Now I was conscious of an odd smell from ahead of me. Things were not at all right. I didn't know what to do.
Slowly I raised my camera and held it in front of me. Just about this time there was a break in the clouds and the moon shown through revealing a young Chinese man with a rifle and a long pointy looking bayonet on the end of it. He was about to make a Shish-ka-bob out of me.
I did the only thing I could do, I took his picture. I guess the flash blinded him because he lunged forward impaling my camera on his bayonet. The force of the lunge carried the young man right up to me and spun me around 180 degrees. I yanked the flash gun off the side of the camera and turned back to face him, I hit him in the head as hard as I could. The four D batteries flew in every direction from the flashgun but I was scared and in a panic. I hit him again and again until my arm felt like if I lifted it again it would fall off.
The young man stopped moving, there was no longer any reaction when I hit him and his head wasn't hard any more. It was kind of like hitting a bag of wet beans. I knew he was dead. My heart was still racing and my eyes were wide with the terror of the moment.
I fell back into the mud, closed me eyes, took a deep breath and waited until morning. As daylight filled the trench I looked at my handiwork. He was a young man of about 14. Clean shaven, by the look of a small spot on the right hand side of his face which had not been hit or covered with mud. He was five foot and about 4 inches tall and probably 130 pounds. He was wearing less than I had on, there was no jacket. His uniform was a greenish brown and somewhat wrinkled, but it had been clean recently. I couldn't see his shoes, his feet were covered with the same mud that covered mine.
By now the water in the trench had crept up over about half of the uniform staining it a much darker color and the blood from his head had run down his neck and stained his shirt to the belt line. There was a thin film of ice all over him as there was on me. His build was slight but wiry like all the rest of the Chinese I had seen. He must have been as cold as I was.
As the sun rose higher in the sky, I stayed there in that stinking trench with him for several hours just looking at him and wondering about his home life. I can remember thinking of how his family would feel when they heard what I had done. I felt sick. Somehow, I doubted if either one of us really knew why we were there or why we were supposed to kill each other. I knew in my heart which he was following orders, just like me.
I reached into his pockets and found a wallet with identification papers in it. There was a picture of the man but there was no way anyone would ever recognize what lay in there in the trench with me. I doubt if even a family member would have recognized him.
It must have been about noon before I left the young man, I couldn't shake the feeling there was something more I should have done. As I was about to leave, a Marine dropped into the trench beside me. He looked over my handiwork and after a long low pitched whistle he said, "We usually just killum!"
When I got back to the Marine camp, I handed the wallet over to Graves Registration and set about developing the picture I had taken of the young man. I carried the picture in my wallet for years there after. I didn't show it to many people, I wasn't very proud of what I'd done. I had gone on living and he hadn't, but for what?
Even at this late date, some forty plus years after the fact, there are many times I will wake up in the middle of the night after feeling I was again striking his head with the flash gun. The tears still run down my face after each incident and the picture in my mind of the faceless boy crumpled up in that stinking trench is still etched deep into my memory. I can almost still smell it.
I found out later the Sargent had gone back to his tent, had some coffee with his friends and gone to sleep. In the morning he had reported me killed in action and set out for reassignment in Japan. I caught up with the Sargent about three months later in a bar in Yokohama and settled the score. I made double darn sure he would never forget leaving me alone in that trench.
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