Dates of Service
ROBERT L. QUINTAL Sr.
Corporal | Infantry
Fine dust floated through the blanket of sun that wrapped around the mountains to the east. A low buzzing swelled from the valley below as flies gathered around, and the rank smell that attracted them was already thick in the still air. Some of the dying had not succumbed to their wounds yet and frail moans echoed in the hills. A few of the moans came from the American held ridges, but most of the wounded had already been evacuated. Soldiers shuffled about, gathering their precious belongings disheveled during the night, making breakfast, and some searching for an unfortunate comrade. Local children snuck out into the battlefield with pliers and hammers, returning shortly to the American lines gleefully revealing handfuls of gold teeth they had knocked out.
Valiante lit a cigarette and pulled aggressively, the ember racing toward his lips. Next to him, Bob Quintal sat curled up with his arms around his knees and his head bowed. He extended his hand without saying a word and Val placed the cigarette in his fingers and promptly lit another one. Bob unfolded himself and rubbed his face with filthy hands. His nails were worn down and his hands dark with dirt and gun grease. Beads of sweat ran trails through the grime embedded on his skin – it was already getting warm. He figured he smelled pretty awful after a few weeks online, but they all smelled the same and no longer noticed the odor.
The morning warmed into a day that would be ‘hotter than hell.’ Bob ran his eyes over the edge of his foxhole at distant peaks. Val stretched his legs, plowing his boots through a few spent casings and empty clips that jingled against each other. During the night battle, they had both fired at little flashes on opposing ridges and shadowy movements illuminated by light of flares and searchlights, but both knew they had probably not hit a man. Bob’s ears were still ringing, but he only noticed it if he concentrated on it while it was quiet. Hours ago, he huddled beneath a thunderous artillery barrage so severe that the earth convulsed like it was going to rip apart. Never did a man ever feel so helpless than when tons and tons of explosives rained down in sheets. All he could do was curl up in his foxhole and pray until it was over, hoping that none of the thousands of shells sailed into his little hole in the ground.
While moving around at one point, a chunk of shrapnel smaller than his fist whizzed across his hip close enough that it ripped off the first aid pouch on his cartridge belt. It was the closest he ever came to getting wounded. He flicked the butt of his cigarette into the corner of the foxhole where they dug their rat trap, thin blue smoke curling out of the deep pocket, and leaned his head back against the dirt wall behind him to close his eyes for a moment.
“Quincy, come on, let’s go!” Valiante kicked him in the side and shoved Bob’s helmet into his hands. “They’re taking us off the line, buddy. You can rest after a shower.” They reluctantly picked up their trash and filled in the foxhole knowing that the next day they could likely be on the same peak digging in again.
When he enlisted in January 1951, Bob did so with the intention of escaping the draft which he figured would take him eventually, and at twenty-years-old he left his job as a pressman at Patriot Press to get his military service over with. He had held the job for three years after dropping out of high school following Grade 9 – at the time, the pay was more valuable than education and his family needed the income. He tried to enlist in the Navy first, but they refused him due to his slight build and height of five-foot-four. The Army, however, took just about anybody and added a few pounds to his weight on paper to get him through. Introductory training at Camp Devens was not tough, though Bob felt they could have served more food. After the orientation period where he learned how to dress, talk, and salute, he was off to New Jersey.
After four days of interviews, KP duty, and bouncing around, Bob was finally assigned and settled at Fort Dix. He immediately found the only thing wrong with the place was the lack of food. He wrote home that dinner was evening was a slice of bread without butter, coffee without sugar (if there were cups left), a spoonful of beans, a quarter of a peach, and salad. Breakfast was a spoonful of powdered eggs, coffee in a soup bowl (no sugar), and one and a half cookies. When he heard there would be even less provided during training, he was disheartened. He quickly found a way to make friends with the cooks so the scarcity of food would no longer be an issue.
In the beginning, duty was mostly cleaning and upkeep of the buildings around the grounds, but the days became tougher and filled with forced marches. While on exercises in the snow and ice, four soldiers ended up with frozen fingers and toes and another one shook so much he could not move from where he stood – a mild experience compared to what lay ahead in Korea. When he made it through a difficult four-mile march at 138 steps per minute, Bob figured he could survive the rest. The men were all limping and suffering from blisters.
His company soon became known as the toughest in the regiment and to top the notoriety, Bob proudly scored a 98 out of 100 on his individual proficiency test. Assuming he was destined for life in an infantry regiment, Bob specialized in mortars hoping that such a skill would keep him out of a foxhole and in a mortar pit a bit further from the fighting. Before embarking from the west coast, he proudly told the supply sergeant of his mortar training, to which the unimpressed sergeant replied: “Here’s your M1!” and shoved a rifle in his hands.
Not long after, the captain promised they would have orders soon and in a few days the Basic graduates departed for California where they expected to stay for about a week and then off to Japan for six to eight weeks additional training. The train ride across country was luxurious with spectacular views, especially through Colorado and Utah. Rumors of the lull in combat in Korea gave Bob hope that all they would have to do is ‘pick them up and throw them in a hole for fertilizer.’
The first night at sea was rough. Along with a thousand other soldiers, Quintal was violently seasick, but the journey improved in the next couple of days. The two-week trip became the subject of Kate Holliday’s book ‘Troopship’ and she moved about taking photos for Life or Look magazine. Years later when he picked up a copy, Bob recognized the soldier who became his best friend in the center of the book jacket. The crew played records over the loudspeakers and though there was not a Catholic chaplain on board, a group of them gathered to say the rosary daily. The members of Bob’s 4th Platoon spent the rest of their free time growing moustaches and debating working on sideburns after getting GI haircuts. They looked forward to solid ground and the thought of getting to Korea in time to have a truce in place.
Japan was a ‘queer place’ for Quintal. Within a week, he knew he would be in Korea sooner than he expected and passed the time in Japan at Camp Drake or touring Yokohama and Tokyo. A small sterling cocktail set went home to his mother, not likely to be used, but a souvenir of the most foreign land he had seen yet. His assignment came quickly: the 7th Infantry Division, an hourglass insignia which he hoped ‘the sand doesn’t all run out before I get home…I may never see combat as long as I’m there, for every man on the front line, there are six behind the lines and I may be one of the six.’ He met Tony Valiante, also going to the Division in Korea and the two immediately became inseparable. The boat that took him to Korea was an old Japanese ship with straw mats on the floor for sleeping. It was a meager affordance, but better than sleeping on a troop train or simply sitting up.
Korea was the filthiest and smelliest place he ever saw. He found it shocking that the people relieved themselves anywhere and then repurposed their waste for garden manure, but took great pity on them when he flicked a cigarette butt in the street and a handful of men, women, and children leapt on it. Eventually, he would be sharing his dinner regularly with the children who sat quietly nearby with hungry eyes. Even when his serving of ice cream melted into hot mashed potatoes they scarfed it down eagerly. He passed the time by climbing a nearby hill to get a look of city before descending to tour it in full. The people were pitiful but polite and friendly and just needed a chance.
From Pusan, he moved north of the 38th parallel and was subsequently assigned to the 31st Infantry Regiment. He immediately learned that the regiment was the best in Korea. To the delight of the two friends, Tony received the same assignment. After a day and a half of front-line training, a major selected men as replacements for Headquarters Company. While all his buddies from basic went to line units, Bob was chosen for the HQ Company along with Tony where they were subsequently assigned to the Security Platoon.
While the regiment was in reserve out of earshot of Chinese guns, the first two months passed with monotonous guard duty around camp. Fortunately, all the bodies were buried so the air did not stink. Their first five days were spent training. After that, time became stagnant and irrelevant made worse by the oppressive heat. The noontime malaria pill on Sunday marked what day of the week it was. The sun rose before nine and was light for about twelve hours, bringing temperatures over one hundred degrees at its peak. Almost no one had mirrors, and Bob imagined he was dirty and tanned enough within a couple weeks that he ‘looked like a Korean himself.’ Even his letters became grubby and soaked in sweat if they remained in his pockets. Annual monsoons predicted for July and August sounded refreshing.
In a few weeks, Quintal already met Koreans, Frenchmen, Englishmen, Turkish and soldiers several other nations. His proximity to the regimental headquarters put him close to plenty of staff meetings and social calls at all hours of the day. For three hours each night, he was posted outside whichever tent required his presence. If not on guard, he was out on a nearby hill on observation post. The luxuries of the job while in reserve included three hot meals a day and a tent at night. When time permitted, he spent some days lazing in a nearby river tanning on the warm stones in the river bed. A beer and soda ration might typically be a benefit as well, but in the summer heat, Bob would have preferred a canteen of fresh water over a truckload of either, especially when out in the hills where uncontaminated streams were scarce. There were not many streams in the mountains that were free of dead bodies.
A little Korean refugee about seven years old made his into their camp and he was quickly adopted as a houseboy. He had lost both his parents in the war and was not sure himself how old he was. Bob brought him into the mess and asked the sergeant to feed him, which he agreed to do daily as long as the boy washed his clothes. They went to the river after to wash the boy up, clean his own clothes, and Bob fixed him a place in his tent. Butch, as they named him, washed clothes, shined boots, made beds and helped Bob clean his rifle all for a Hershey bar.
Quintal looked forward to corporal stripes, but heard the rank was not easy to obtain during a combat tour. The topic was a frequent subject of his letters that he wrote, often done while lying on his stomach in his tent with a dozen flies walking up and down his back. He also wished for a glass of milk. The only milk available in Korea was evaporated milk for coffee or powdered milk that tasted like gunpowder. The shaded but stuffy tent gave some relief to the blistering sun and Butch waved the flies away. He would have to join the next group of refugees, but in the meantime, Bob enjoyed living like royalty – sweaty and without milk, but pampered.
During their period in reserve, it felt like the sections of Headquarters Company were the only ones doing any work. While the line companies seemed to be taking it easy constructing bunkers, the Security, I&R, and AT/Mine Platoons were busy patrolling and pulling guard duty. A full field inspection by Colonel McCaffrey indicated they would soon be going up on the line. While at parade rest under a full sun, he counted the drops of sweat rolling off his little finger – one every four seconds over the course of an hour.
A few days after Butch arrived, the next group of refugees passed through and Bob sent the boy away on a truck. He did not want to go, but he quietly agreed after Bob explained why he needed to leave. Butch insisted on writing in English where Bob lived and said someday he would visit and be his houseboy for as long as he wanted. This was all done through translation by Lee Sheong Shoon, a Korean lieutenant, who was also a friend. He was a twenty-three-year-old graduate of Seoul College and barely over five feet tall. Even little Quintal was a few inches taller than him. Lee’s greatest desire was to go to the United States after the war and major in world history and speak English fluently. His string of questions was unending.
Many of the Koreans were gullible and with plenty of time to concoct stories, Bob told some of them how he saw ‘Wong’ while on guard duty. They were fascinated about Wong, the all-colored dragon in the sky. If you prayed to Wong for rain, it would rain, though it might take days and when Wong was mad, he brought thunder and lighting. Some men would swear on a stack of bibles they saw the creature in the sky. Bob reported when he saw him, the dragon said it would snow in January 1952. Some of the guys challenged him about how he could understand Wong, but apparently, he was fluent in Korean, French and Italian and spoke to Bob in French.
When he was not creating tales, Quintal looked forward to going back to the States and becoming a PT instructor or transferring to the Transportation Corps. As much as a peace treaty would encourage the end of hostilities, it would prolong his return home and mean a transition from security duties to honor guard. If that happened, he vowed to request a transfer anywhere to avoid daily inspections, manual of arms, and dismounted drilling.
At the end of July, orders posted to the bulletin board one morning showed a promotion to private first class for both Quintal and Valiante. It was one stripe closer to corporal, but one so small that Bob wrote ‘you have to use a microscope and tweezers to sew it on and then you can’t see it.’ He was still doing guard duty three times a day, patrolling frequently, and had finally accepted beer as a reasonable drink as the water and coffee tasted like iodine.
Sitting next to him as he wrote letters home was a Korean kid about thirteen who worked as a spy for the regiment. Along with an old man, they passed as father and son and went into enemy lines unarmed to gather information. They frequently managed to come back with a prisoner. Another boy about ten did the same job and they were paid well for their duties – more than the average Korean officer.
The period of reserve ended on August 5th and Bob’s letters stopped for several days. His Korean tour so far had been full of incredible new experiences for the Connecticut native, but was about to become much more thrilling, terrifying, and passed with unpredictable speed when the 7th Division moved north of Hwachon.
In only a few days online, Bob had already grown a bit of a beard. It was gray and itchy from insect powder, but there was little free time to shave. There was even less time when the squad leader thought it was funny to waste it on jokes. The sergeant called him up to the middle of a hill one morning to ask for Quintal’s opinion on something. After hiking up the slope, the sergeant inquired: “What do you think of the rectum as a whole?”
The Division had rotated with the 24th Division on August 8th and settled in positions 2000 yards in front of the main line of resistance. They patrolled daily and built up their trenches and bunkers overlooking the Hudong-ni valley and Heartbreak Ridge. The end of summer was consumed with the excitement of preparations and ultimately into the fray of continuous rotation between thrilling fear and excitement and periods of extreme boredom. At the next opportunity, Bob hoped to be elected for a combat leader course. Only one man from each platoon was chosen and if it meant a change of activity and shot at promotion, he was eager to accept to earn those stripes.
Though HQ Company was set behind the battalions strung along the front, the security platoon was not spared from danger. They were responsible for conducting patrols and maintaining contact with forward units, discouraging infiltrators from sneaking in, and accompanying the regimental commander and staff officers to the front. A handful of the rapacious types found excuses to visit the lines for a chance at a gallantry medal. The Colonel, however aggressive and motivated, was an absolute professional who respected his men. Bob’s squad mate Dick Hoffman spoke highly of McCaffery after guarding the commander’s tent. He took the task seriously, wanting to impress, but after a few days of sharply saluting the Colonel each time he passed, McCaffery kindly asked that he relax.
The amount of artillery used earlier in the year had been so fierce that the pipeline was nearly dried up and still replenishing, so the Colonel’s orders were to dig in and hold. The Security Platoon waited for a change during first couple weeks of August and Quintal continued guarding the staff officers’ tents. Before one of his friends left for R&R, Bob had him take a photo with the promise of developing the film in Japan. He posed at parade rest, serious and professional in front of a thicket near the S2 and S3 section, claiming in his notes that he did not look too good.
While the Americans anxiously waited for orders to attack, the Chinese were similarly unaggressive and the opposing sides hollered back and forth at each other while walking comfortably along the ridgelines – it was obvious to Bob that the enemy was about as interested in fighting as he was and would rather just go home, though he also knew they probably had no choice.
The end of August brought torrential rain for two days that left foxholes pooling with a few inches of water and trenches and bunkers laced with trickling streams. It was impossible to dry soggy uniforms and equipment while the sky remained overcast and pouring. Their first attack launched at midnight of August 31st and ensuing patrols and small battles during the month marked Bob’s first combat action and the last major offensive for the 7th Division in 1951.
Though the Chinese had appeared resigned during the period, veterans of the first year of fighting knew they were cunning. The Chinese had spent time quietly digging in during the month as well and were embedded into the jagged terrain twenty miles deep. They had built up trench systems, camouflaged artillery pieces, reverse slope positions, and rugged bunkers. The next morning, the regiment began taking bunkers the hard way with flame throwers and pole charges.
In early September, the company was near Yanggu on Hills 1073 and 734. The nights were getting colder and Bob was happy to have a sleeping bag he traded his blanket for. The brook nearby had dried up, so bathing was no longer a frequent practice. He definitely was not going home for Christmas with only 10/36 points. After experiencing frontline life for even a short time, the longer stay overseas was looking more desirable if it meant taking the 2 points a month in Japan for a while. Though he was initially disappointed that he was not selected for the leadership course he wanted (and the soldier that did go immediately made rank), when the corporal was transferred to a line company, Bob realized he was well off where he was and later refused the opportunity when he was selected to go. He was comfortable in the Security Platoon where he had a strong brotherhood with Valiante.
A few replacements arrived at the end of September including another Italian, Frank Trantanella, who joined the squad. Between the newcomers, those that had been in the platoon before his arrival, and the few he sailed over with, the soldiers formed a bond only those in the service understood. Even those who were not so keen as soldiers were loved, including one individual in particular who was always blundering through his duties with no awareness of his own incompetence. By the time he was done peeling a potato it had reduced dramatically in size and any reaming out and discipline had no effect on his oblivious cheer. Countless times he volunteered to clean the grease pits, as long as the captain joined him (who he was immensely fond of). Hoffman was promoted to corporal and their new platoon sergeant arrived, an old timer who took his job seriously and took care of his men.
At thirty-two, Master Sergeant Frank Pizzuto had been in the Army since the late 1938 and served through Europe during the war. He joined HQ Company in September and was the stereotype of a husky sergeant, focused on athletics, and favored his Italian kin. Trantanella and Sal Fusco made rank suspiciously fast, which irritated Hoffman as he was the senior corporal itching for the pay of sergeant. Though Val was not favored in the way of promotion, he and Bob did manage to get away with misbehaving consistently.
Through September and October, most of their life on the line was in bunkers, but they often found themselves spending a night in a foxhole on an isolated mountaintop acting as an outpost or listening post. Frequently, a couple of men or a full squad were ordered to set up such an outpost on a nearby hill and watch for enemy that no one seemed to know the location of. Grenades were scarce, but they always grabbed as many as they could find and sometimes lugged a cumbersome water cooled .30 caliber machinegun up a rugged ridge. Elderly Koreans with A-frames stacked to what looked like a ridiculous load passed them on the way up, shuffling with little steps. It boggled the mind that these old men and women could climb a hill in short little steps much faster than a young soldier in his prime. They often followed a local Korean who claimed to have information and spent a tense night wondering if the intelligence from the local was accurate, if the enemy would show, or if the local was a double agent. The anticipation was anxiety inducing – every shadow looked like the outline of a figure; every rustle and snap of a twig an approaching soldier. Bob always thought it was hard to tell who the good guys were and who the bad guys were and at night it was impossible without calling for the password. It was also suspicious that the enemy always seemed to know where the Americans would end up and on more than one occasion, they caught spies returning to enemy lines to divulge plans shared during briefings.
One of the first things Quintal did when the regiment went back to reserve was fetch a new pair of pants from supply. His old pair was ratty, worn and full of holes from weeks of use. They were twenty-five miles behind the lines again and life quickly became dull – a welcome change after two months of combat. He heard one of his friends, Vincent Ruppert in L Company, was killed. (Bob never learned he was evacuated with serious leg wounds that warranted a discharge from the Army). The troops were back to keeping clean clothes, spotless rifles, shiny helmets and as far as Bob was concerned, ‘other baloney like that.’ He passed time reading any books he could get his hands on.
He was passed over for the commander’s honor guard on account of being too short – another set-back due to his small stature. Around camp he at least had the opportunity to steal peaches and other coveted items from the officers’ mess, which he blatantly denied when questioned. ‘What was the worst they would do,’ he joked, ‘send him to Korea?’ As a boy, he had plenty of practice pilfering with his friends when he sold scrap rags to a blind man and quickly ran to the back of his cart, grabbed some the poor man had already purchased, and sell them back to him again.
Sometimes the loot from the mess was paired with care packages from home, especially cured meats from the Italians, particularly Tony’s family in Bayonne. There was time to assemble walkways lined with stones, create signage, decorate the doors of their tents, and find means of entertainment to pass the time. Some of the products and fruit they procured went toward brewing hooch in their tents. He spent some time brewing a batch with Val, only to have the drum explode over their uniforms and everything else in the back of a truck as they traversed bumpy terrain.
In mid-October, the 31st Infantry shifted its sector of operation back to the Mundung-ni valley which was always thick with fog in the morning and late afternoon. The nights and mornings were cool, warming moderately during the day before dropping as a prelude to the winter. In the opposing hills, they no longer faced Chinese, but North Koreans.
The legendary Ethiopian contingent joined the Regiment’s as the attached United Nations force. The lore of the hard-fighting Kagnew Battalion’s dark-skinned warriors preceded them and Bob quickly respected them. They were smart, professional, and an ally he remembered for many years following the war. He worked closely with them during grueling operations during the period. Bob found the stress and fear to be normal, though he was never quite used to it. They eventually recevied their winter clothing and one of Quintal’s sergeants told him that Pizutto had put his name in for corporal, though with a few replacement NCOs rotating in, the promotion was still a distant dream.
Before they cleaned up he and Tony nearly busted out laughing every time they looked at each other’s haggard faces and long tussled hair. Once at the base of the hill, Bob had little time to rest, wash and shave for the first time in a week before going on regular patrols. These days continued through the end of the month that ended in days of rain that left six inches of mud outside. One of the more exhausting days left him with only one hour of sleep in over 33 hours. They received pile jackets and caps to help with the cooling temperatures and were delighted to hear that parka jackets were coming in time for winter.
Toward the end of November, the regiment moved into Division reserve which was a small relief for a couple weeks during the bitter Korean winter. Though their accommodations were only pup tents, it was better than life in bunkers or foxholes. The men could move about at their leisure and have the freedom of physical activity beyond patrolling. Their winter clothing felt barely adequate and when Bob and his buddies observed a shipment of new winter equipment being distributed to ROK troops, they were delighted at the prospect of getting new parkas and other gear. His feet in particular were always cold and was thankful for a box of socks from home. Of the six pairs of socks he had been issued: 10, 10, 12, 13, 14, and 15, only the smallest size 10s barely fit, but they were all enough to keep his feet warm. After patiently waiting for the ROK troops to disperse, he stood horrified as the new winter gear was gathered together and burned. The end of the month brought snow. Quintal was halfway through his Korean tour and No. 21 on the R&R list. He was still hoping for corporal.
On November 1st, Quintal went out to an observation post for a week or two with a section of the squad that included Hoffman, Val, and Trant. It took three hours to hike up the hill with a pack and felt like it only took fifteen minutes to run down. They had C6 and C7 rations, which were essentially the same except for a few changes to the size of the can of fruit, slightly different formulas, and the inclusion of a soluble milk product for coffee. The spoon included in the C7 ration was what really set it apart for the average soldier and what they typically claimed made it the superior type.
They brought with them a telephone connected to the platoon command post should they spot anything worth reporting. The sections armament, in addition to their rifles, were boxes of illuminating grenades, a light .30-caliber machine gun, and plenty of ammunition. There was always at least one man on guard. The days were mild and comfortable, but the nights were cold with snow showing on the high hills nearby by morning. In the valley below, tank-mounted 8-inch ‘Long Toms’ fired frequently, bouncing the group of four off the ground when they fired. The only problem Bob faced was he had too much time to think. They had a chance to take a few photos on November 6th before they left the lonely hilltop.
On December 23d, Quintal received an assignment to go up on an observation post with either one GI and four ROKs or all ROKs. He ended up with Valiante and three ROK soldiers. They came off the hill briefly when Cardinal Spellman gave Christmas Mass – he wanted to visit the loneliest spots in Korea and ended up at HQ & HQ Company with General Van Fleet, an organ and violinist. It began to snow in the middle and the violinist played Ave Maria. Snow continued for two days after Christmas and the terrible wind left Bob with frozen fingers. They had to melt snow for water and he found it difficult to sleep at night, but the sun was bright and clear and the view was beautiful. He was on OP with Val and the Koreans until late afternoon on December 31st as it was getting dark.
Within a half an hour, he was on guard duty along with another soldier. Hours were passing slowly when a pair of Chinese or Koreans appeared out of the night, startling the two Americans as well as themselves. Under a thin sliver of a moon, the men stood in silence for what was probably only a moment, but seemed longer as Bob clutched his rifle and his mind raced. No one spoke, but they began signaling to each other, somehow making it clear that neither side wanted to shoot at the other. The Asians turned and slipped away as quickly as they had come.
A few days later, the R&R list arrived with Robert L. Quintal as the first name. Val was number two and they prepared to ‘turn Japan upside down’ on the 15th of the month. Until then, he kept to reading. Without books, he thought too much of home and became homesick and grouchy, but reading kept his mind occupied. He was put in charge of fourteen men before R&R and could hardly concentrate on the task. Ten PFCs and four corporals were under his watch, an interesting responsibility for a private first class himself and in his opinion, that called for corporal stripes, but the orders he yearned for had not been struck yet.
The week in Japan ended up not being much for rest or recuperation. He ‘threw money away like water’ and did ‘paint it red’ like he promised in his letters. Years later, he joked about little Quintal cousins running around in the Far East and among the collection of items saved was a small photo named Kioko Weda, whose story goes no further than the small thumbnail photograph. Getting on the plane to return to Korea was the worst feeling and in a breeze he was back in the Korean winter huddled in desolate outposts. When Trant got a blood clot in his toe, Bob volunteered to take his place for a couple days.
Eighteen miles from the front, Quintal kept doing a corporal’s job of day guard while he neared number 50 on the rotation list. It felt like not long ago he was at 400. The weather in mid-February was like a wet spring that thawed out the frozen hills and turned the earth to mud. The Division traveled over 100 miles to Corps reserve at Kapyong. It took over seven hours by truck across roads slippery from mud and snow. Their camp was in a quiet orchard surrounded by chestnut trees. After two days there was about an inch of mud in their tent and Bob made a bunk from branches, a shelter half and sandbags. Bob anxiously awaited his rotation which he knew was coming soon. The extra day of leap year seemed like an unfair addition to time in Korea. The only bright moment was when he was gloomy about missing the Betty Hutton show and she stopped by while he was on guard duty after. Her ‘hello,’ small talk and good looks were enough of a boost to get him through the next couple of days.
By the beginning of April, it was time. Leaving was the thing he had most looked forward to during his entire year in Korea aside from earning corporal stripes, but that was not going to happen with only a few days left and several more NCO replacements. The company commander promised to add a recommendation to his records.
On April 8th, eleven men rotated out of the company and Bob barely made it at number ten. Val was number twelve, so it meant they would be parting ways there in the muddy tent city at Kapyong. It was bittersweet to say goodbye to his squad mates who had become like family and they bid farewells promising to write or visit. It was a lonely trip home made worse when an officer confiscated Bob’s captured Russian carbine. A couple of his other souvenirs including a Korean cane and a stolen .45 pistol were later swiped from his seabag. He passed through San Francisco and across the country back home to Connecticut where he spent the next few days sharing stories of the past year, but never really knowing how to explain how his life had changed and how the war affected him. He looked forward to finishing his three-year enlistment and tucked away the memories of Korea.
Stateside duty was significantly quieter than Korea and full of opportunities to learn and think about a career. He only visited home briefly before his next assignment. Even though he applied for First Army area assignment to stay close to home, the Army sent Quintal to the Second Army area and by summer 1952 he found himself at Camp Pickett on the outskirts of Blackstone, Virginia. It was tobacco country, hot and soupy, (though not nearly as stifling as Korea), and always humming with cicadas. He found the local soldiers and families to be most welcoming and happy to have a young soldier in their company for an evening.
For a while he was mail clerk, then in charge of signing out vehicles from the motor pool, and mess sergeant for a few months. He knew nothing about cooking – they only needed someone who could be in charge of the chefs. He found this job to be the most difficult since he always asked the company commander if the troops would be around or out for the weekend. Frequently, they were supposed to be granted passes only to have inspection, fail, and have to stick around. Without any food available, Bob had to borrow from the other companies. On the other hand, when he ordered enough to feed everyone when he thought no one was going to pass inspection and then they all ended up out for the weekend. He distributed the extra hams, bags of potatoes, onions and other produce to his friends around the base.
In the spring of 1953, Quintal was selected among 200 men to form a provisional company to go to Nevada for participation in the atomic tests at Camp Desert Rock. They spent a week instructing in chemical, bacteriological, and radiological warfare before leaving by plane on March 19th for the ten-day exercise. It was an experience that was more terrifying than the war in Korea in some ways. They anticipated they might witness the Army’s new 280-mm atomic cannon.
Much of his time was spent in camp under a dry sweltering sun with nothing for miles but dirt, sandstone and yucca plants. Though some Quonset huts made the installation look at least semi-permanent, Bob lived in a dirt floor tent during his time in the desert. After arrival, they spent a five-hour day briefing on the upcoming event and the third day was spent learning about ‘blast day.’ They rested on the fourth day, only to be woken before midnight to move to the forward area.
At 2:30 in the morning, two hours before blast time, the troops ate sandwiches with milk in the thin slit trenches they occupied. They were only a few thousand yards away from the blast site – a distant tower from which the atomic bomb would drop. Between there and his own trench were several more forward trenches and small ghost towns constructed to test the effects of the blast, complete with mannequins, cars and livestock.
To commence the test, a 2500-pound charge of TNT fired for comparison. In a few moments, that would feel insignificant as the actual nuclear blast was equivalent to over 20,000 tons of TNT – over 16,000 times as powerful as the preparatory explosion. At two minutes before the drop, orders came to crouch, eyes forward, and bodies pressed against the front of the trenches. Then the ten second count down.
The entire world became bright white and the flash of the explosion illuminated so intensely that Bob could see the bones of his hands and the faint skeletons of the men next to him before being completely blinded for an instant. In the ten seconds between the blast and roar of the explosion, his vision slowly returned in time to see the ground rippling and rolling toward his trench. Even with knowledge from the many hours of briefing, it was a surreal and terrifying sight. The rippling shockwave tore past them and everyone stood to see the blooming fireball and mushroom cloud stretching two miles high and a mile in diameter.
The amount of dust limited visibility to only one hundred feet and the intense heat above the trenchline ignited the nearby Joshua trees. Through the blanket of dust, the boiling fireball (as hot as the center of the sun) glowed red and cooled with patches of blue called a ‘flue feather’ that was indicative of the gamma radiation. The massive cloud continued to rise and the blue turned to brown as the nitrate burned off. As it reached a height of ten miles, ice crystals began forming over the cloud and soon it was a soft white that became pink when the sun rose over the mountains in the distance behind the insane mushroom cloud.
When the dust finally settled, the troops went over the top and approached the decimated towns toward the center of the blast zone. They were limited to marching within 1500 yards of ground zero on account of radioactivity. Their trench line, at 2500 yards, was just outside of the lethal blast zone. Once within its radius, Bob began to see the effects of atomic destruction. Six-inch trees were snapped and ripped away; the mock buildings similarly wiped out and flattened. Vehicles were charred hulks and the animals vaporized. He wondered what happened to the men in the most forward trenches.
The three main killers of a nuclear explosion were the heat, the blast, and the radiation. Ducking below the earth’s surface in his little trench at a great distance, the heat did not burn him and the blast had little effect on the human body. The radiation, as they were told at that time in 1953, dissipated by 90% within the first ten minutes and any lingering radiation was inconsequential: alpha particles travel only a maximum of 15 inches from the fireball; elections: 21 feet; neutrons: 1500 feet; and gamma rays, also 1500 feet, but at the speed of light and then are lost.
Such knowledge of atomic weapons and radiation settled many fears of the time. It was the peak of science and weapons technology and should the United States face war with the devastating weapons, troops trained in atomic warfare were familiar with the blasts and could march fearlessly into the melted wasteland. Since then, however, it became clear that observing in these trenches and assaulting into the blast zone was a major source of radiation exposure that took many veterans to their death. Only a few soldiers in each Battalion Combat Team were issued film badges, rendering accurate recording of exposure across the thousands of participants to estimations and assumptions.
He left Nevada without the diary he was keeping – one day it disappeared from his nightstand without a word or any repercussions. He actually received a commendation from the company commander while he was there for what he considered to be little more than keeping his bunk clean and boots shined and in June, his long sought corporal stripes came. He had less than a year left of his term of enlistment and had yet to decide what to do with his life when he met Emily in September. The next four months passed quickly and they married the day after his discharge. They honeymooned on the way back to Connecticut where the couple began a quiet life together.
For the next fifty years, Bob tried to keep Korea out of his mind. He frequently had nightmares unless Emily slept beside him and he always crept away from July 4th fireworks displays only to be found sitting alone in his dark kitchen with a drink in hand. He never spoke about Korea, nor was he asked, until his grandson began to inquire. What he kept dormant for a lifetime came back over the course of many conversations on the porch, games of cards, and late nights past his early bed time. The stories he shared were mostly happy – of good times with old friends – but behind the good memories were those that he still kept to himself. The ones that he admitted if he knew what he was getting in to, he never would have enlisted; that while polishing a tarnished ring inscribed ‘Korea 1951’ bought from a street peddler, he grumbled about how the ‘goddamn Chinese’ were still getting him dirty; that while looking at a map, fell quiet while holding back tears. To see such a strong, humorous and happy man so affected by whatever he experienced in Korea is what started the quest to uncover this story.