Holiday memory: Land of Morning Calm
It is December 24, 1951, in Korea, the Land of Morning Calm. The temperature is holding at 40 degrees below zero; the small can of Sterno in the bottom of the foxhole gives off little heat to warm two men huddled in it.
A shelter, half stretched across the top in lean-to fashion, keeps the snow off. The machine gun points at the mountain across the small valley. A Santa Claus ornament dangles a few inches behind the muzzle. Six-inch snowmen are lined up across the front of the foxhole like sentries on guard.
John Metzger, a short, broad-shouldered Polish boy of 18 years from Illinois, looks through binoculars at the mountain across the valley. He watches the enemy as they move from one spot to another. Spirals of smoke hang low to the ground, drifting toward the valley below.
Ralph Greene, 17 years old, tall and skinny, who had never seen snow until now, heats water for coffee on the can of Sterno and writes a few words on a tablet, complaining about the snow and cold to his folks back home in Georgia.
Heavy snow starts falling, making it impossible to see across the way where the enemy has dug in. Maybe they do not want to be here either. Suddenly, high-pitched whistles fill the air and break the morning calm. The ground shakes in tremors as explosions blow large holes into the earth. Some of the little snowmen fall and break apart.
Streaks of fire from the bottom of the hill reach upward. Someone screams in pain. The machine gun spits fire from its muzzle, making the Christmas ornament dance.
The little snowmen explode, spraying snow on the men in the hole. It becomes quiet again. The smoke lingers close to the ground, leaving the smell of burnt gunpowder.
Medics crawl across the ground to take care of the wounded and fill body bags with those who did not make it. Humming “Jingle Bells,” John rebuilds the little snowmen across the front of his foxhole. Ralph asks, “How can you be so cheerful after what just happened?” He reloads the machine gun, getting ready for another skirmish.
“I’m not cheerful, just remembering the season to forget.”
Snow falls again as the men drink coffee and talk of Christmas back home: how they would go out to get a tree to decorate for the season; how their moms would roast a turkey.
The dark comes early; Ralph goes to sleep while John watches across the valley. He lays a blanket over the machine gun to keep it dry. Then he sits back, sipping a cup of coffee, and watches the mountain, now flooded with searchlights. He picks up the field phone and reports to the command post that all is quiet for now.
In the morning, snow falls lightly, covering the ground with fresh white. The only things seen are helmets sticking out of the foxholes across the side of the hill. The breath of men, in small puffs, drifts out of their foxholes.
Through our binoculars, we watch the enemy across the way moving about freely. It is Christmas morning. The peace talks declared a cease-fire. That will last through the day for sure; after that, who knows what will happen? We receive orders to maintain our position and report on the enemy movements.
Mark and I set up a Sterno stove in our small foxhole to make coffee and heat up some C-rations for breakfast. It gives us a little heat against the cold air, and we talk about home and how we used to spend our Christmas mornings. I tell Mark that I would have finished milking the cows by now and would be heading for the house to have homemade biscuits and gravy with the rest of the family. Mark tells me about his Christmas on the farm in Nebraska.
About 10 in the morning, the mail arrives from the rear area. I get a package from home filled with homemade cookies and fudge, along with a brown wool scarf that Grandma knitted for me. Mark gets some homemade sausage and warm gloves. We sit and eat cookies, sausage and fudge, laughing about what a combination for Christmas dinner.
At 2 in the afternoon, we receive orders to go the backside of the hill where the enemy cannot see us. The cooks had set up an outdoor kitchen and were serving Christmas dinner. We fill our mess kit with hot turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy and fill our canteen cups with fresh milk. It is the first hot meal we have had in six days.
Mark and I go back to our hole in the ground and take turns writing a letter home while the other keeps watch on the enemy. Mark pokes me in the ribs, then points towards the enemy and hands me the binoculars. The enemy is setting up mortar positions. I call back to headquarters and inform them of what is taking place. They ask for the coordinates and tell me to stand by.
We watch the enemy for the rest of the day as they prepare to make an attack on our position. We hold our position and our fire, but we know what will be coming in a few hours. For now, though, all is well as can be this Christmas morning in the Land of Morning Calm.