November 11, 2012
Dillon Staas Jr. went into the service in 1947 and was sent to Japan for the occupation. He reinlisted in January 1950, figuring he’d be taken anyway as a replacement. He volunteered to go to Korea, and just six weeks later war started.
He was a clerk in Japan, and in Korea was assigned to a MASH hospital. He served in Korea for a year and then returned stateside.
Staas first wrote poetry when he came back from Japan and then didn’t write again until the 1990s. One of his poems is included in the veterans plaque inside Veterans Memorial Civic Center. He continues to write poetry occasionally, but he’s now more interested in writing songs. He sings with a group called The Goldenaires that visits nursing homes. Stass, now 83, has also given talks about his service at schools.
To the Soldier
God grant us peace that we may leave
All thoughts of war behind.
Erase the dreams that rend our hearts
And clear our troubled minds.
When we have filled our destinies
Take us unto Thine own.
And we at last this world depart
To sleep beside Thy throne.
Not the Dying
It isn’t really dying that’s the hardest thing of all.
In fact it’s almost welcome when the reaper comes to call.
A soldier sees the face of death for days and days on end.
A brief respite, a time to think, and then he’s back again.
And when he’s in a firefight there isn’t time to care,
With bullets flying left and right and wounded everywhere.
There isn’t even time for fear, for sorrow nor for pain.
Nor thoughts of home, nor will he ever see his folks again.
The quiet, lonely, sleepless hours spent huddled in a hole
Without a single shell or shot, exact a fearsome toll.
A horrid fate he contemplates within his fear-filled mind,
The joys he took for granted once have all been left behind.
So pity not that soldier when he takes his final breath
For all his fears and sorrows melt into the coils of death.
But save it for the ones who stay to face their fate again.
Pity those he leaves behind to grieve for this poor man.
Memories of Korea
When I first arrived in Pusan, the hospital was set up in a school of some kind. Each afternoon, the hospital train would come in from the front with a load of wounded. We had a Philippine ambulance company attached, and they would go to the station and relay the patients back. We would unload them at the front door, triage and send them to the proper ward or holding area. They could handle five litters per load, and we got from 100 to 300 men in a day.
I remember lying on my cot in Taegu just before the Inchon landing and watching the shells explode on the side of the mountain just across the Naktong River. Later, when we broke out, I saw the results of the shelling along the road. There were countless tanks, trucks and artillery pieces blown to pieces, along with many North Korean bodies, which hadn’t been picked up yet for burial.
The massacre in Taejon was the most horrible thing I could have imagined. There were 7,000 dead civilians in an area of about 2 acres or so. There were 40 Americans among them and 500 South Korean troops, all of whom had been captured and were being held in Taejon. Most of the civilians were the elderly, women and small children. It looked like everyone who was able had gone to seek refuge and the old, the infirm and those with children too small to travel were left to be killed by the retreating North Korean troops. The bodies were starting to decompose, and I can’t describe the odor. A Korean family was digging a grave for one young woman and several members were gathered around, crying, as the man placed the girl in the ground. Many GIs became ill and others cried. I was too stunned to do anything. I didn’t cry at the time but I cry about this often now.
On the way north out of Seoul after the breakout of the Pusan perimeter, we saw many refugees walking up one side and down the other side of a road with an A frame loaded with all they could carry of their most necessary belongings. We wondered how many were really displaced people and how many were North Korean soldiers trying to infiltrate to the south or to escape to the north.
Up north of Pyongyang, just before the Chinese came down, an African-American captain came walking into the hospital compound with a chest wound. He had been shot by one of his men with a .45-caliber “grease gun,” a submachine gun. They said it was by accident, but a lot of them weren’t.
In the winter, soon after the Chinese came into the war, we were in Pyongyang and a graves registration truck stopped in to have lunch and pick up bodies from our morgue. The 2 1/2 ton truck was open and piled high with the frozen bodies of dead GIs. They were just as they had been picked up from the field, with limbs sticking out in every direction. I remember worrying that the frozen fingers, ears and other parts would break off and be lost. I doubt that these guys would have cared. I didn’t feel much then either. Later, I felt very stupid for worrying about the body parts breaking off.
We had a Chinese prisoner who had been shot through the chest by an M1 rifle. His flesh was puffy like a sponge but he was walking around and actually happy to be there, as a prisoner. I guess anything is better than being back in battle.
There was another prisoner who had lost his left eyeball. There were maggots crawling in and out of the socket. I had never seen them used before but the Chinese doctors used them routinely.
We had a man come in with something like 11 gunshot wounds all over his body, and he had developed gangrene. The doctors thought he was a goner, and they put him out in the hall to prevent the gangrene from spreading to other patients while he took his time to die. He was still alive after three days so they took him back to surgery and cleaned him out. As far as I know, he is still alive. He made it past our place, anyway. We had a survival rate of 98 percent for the wounded who got to the MASH alive. That was a new record for wounded making it past the battalion aid stations.
We were usually near an airstrip and we “midnight requisitioned” supplies from them often. One night we were getting some good mountain sleeping bags to replace the thin blanket type we had been issued when one of the guys tried to pick up a bag with a guard sleeping in it. We traded a quart of medical alcohol (190 proof) for the bags and he went about his business and we ours.
Another time we were stealing gasoline and heating oil from a rail car when someone threw a spotlight on us and yelled “hands up” or some such thing. It was a supply captain. He told us that his men had a twin 50 on a ring mount on top of a six-by-six truck, and they were about to let loose on us when he came up. He let us keep what we had off the car so we kept warm and cozy for a few days. The oil kept freezing in the lines, and we could only heat the tents in the afternoon when it warmed up enough for the oil to flow. I slept with my clothes on and my head turned away from the opening of the bag. If we turned to face the hole we might wake up without a nose — or with a black, frostbitten one.
The day we left Pyongyang to retreat back to Seoul was bitter cold. I was driving a truck and I couldn’t stick my head out the side and draw a breath. The cold air would stick in my throat, and I couldn’t inhale. When we got to Kaesong we stopped to rest and one of the trucks wouldn’t run, so I hitched a ride with a South Korean driving a truck. I kicked him out and stole the truck. We also stole an ambulance from someone else and headed south. I changed the ID numbers on the truck with some old white paint and my fingertip.
Memories of Japan
My first view of Japan came at the mouth of Tokyo Bay in the spring of 1947. There was nothing remarkable about the scene with the single exception of the rather high mountain I saw as we approached the shore. Only later did I realize that this was the famous Mount Fuji , or Fuji-san, as it is respectfully known among the Japanese.
As we entered the harbor at Yokohama I saw my first Japanese — children diving for coins tossed overboard by the hundreds of sea-weary GIs lining the rail. After the 14-day voyage from Seattle, I welcomed the diversion.
Upon debarking, we were loaded onto dilapidated wooden railway coaches which were decorated with neither windows nor paint. We would travel by rail to our new home at Camp Drake, near the village of Asaka, several miles east of Tokyo. In the station were more of the children such as I had seen in the water. Here, these young businessmen were busily exchanging Japanese sen notes (at this time nearly worthless) for U.S. coins and even a few greenbacks. How they must have loved to see these ignorant foreigners come to their land!
These youngsters were quite pleasant and nice looking but poorly dressed and half starved. It was impossible to begrudge them the profits they made from the one-sided money trading as they were probably supporting their entire family on the proceeds. The local economy had barely begun to recover from the war and but for the thousands working for the occupation forces there would have been almost nothing coming into Japan with which to sustain the economy.