From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

Christmas in Korea

When North Korean troops stormed across the thirty-eighth parallel in June 1950 to attack the outmanned South Korean forces, they triggered the Korean War, a bitterly fought conflict that lasted more than three years. As a U.S. Army medic stationed there, I witnessed the tiny country battered by bombings, artillery fire and ground fighting.

Some fifty-four thousand U.S. troops died in the fighting, and South Koreans lost their homes by the thousands. But the part of the war that seemed to hit me hardest were the Korean orphans, children who had lost their parents in the bloodshed or who had been separated from them in the desperate rush to safety.

My days were exhausting, a never-ending supply of wounded or sick GIs occupying almost all of my time. Duty was lonely and scary, but whenever we started feeling sorry for ourselves, we needed only to look at those parentless children with confused faces and little hope for the future. It strengthened our resolve to protect them and their country from an enemy that was determined to overtake their homeland, no matter the cost.

Winters in Korea were brutally cold, but as Christmas approached in 1952, we were warmed by the care packages from home that began to arrive. They weren’t much—home-baked bread and cookies, candy, chewing gum, reading materials, a few personal items—anything that could survive a trip of a few thousand miles. But just being able to open a package from home and read the letter inside lifted our spirits immensely.

Determined not to let the holiday pass feeling sorry for ourselves, the guys in my small unit made a makeshift Christmas tree out of a winter coat. We decorated the conceptual tree with some of the treats from home, a few knitted hats and gloves, and even some old socks with holes in them. It looked pitiful, but at least it was something, we thought.

Christmas Day arrived, and after our somewhat halfhearted celebration, my thoughts turned to the children in the local orphanage. They had no family or gifts, and though I knew they were in good hands with the apostolic sisters who ran the orphanage, I kept thinking, Everyone deserves a Christmas, no matter where they live.

“Let’s go visit those kids at the orphanage,” I suggested to my buddies. Surely, we could scrounge up something to give them. They agreed, and the four of us rounded up some Spam and crackers from our supplies, and wrapped the cookies, candy and gum we’d been sent from home in old newspapers we found around our hut. We jumped into one of our ambulances and drove to the orphanage— a converted school building somewhere near Chonju. We didn’t really know what we were getting ourselves into and hadn’t really thought much about it, beyond the fact that we just wanted some kids to be happy on Christmas.

We couldn’t call ahead to tell the nuns we were coming, but we hoped they would approve of our surprise visit. Of course, they did. When we finally arrived at the orphanage, they took one look at us with our arms full of presents and began hugging us and crying. Pulling us along, they led us to a large room where boys and girls of various ages—from toddlers to kids about eight years old—were eating a meager meal.

When the children saw us, their faces lit up. Visitors! “GI! GI!” they squealed. They surrounded us, and as we handed out the crudely wrapped parcels, the room filled with their cries of excited delight. Then the nuns asked us to sit down so the children could give us something. The sisters had apparently taught the orphans a few simple Christmas carols, for they began singing with enthusiasm. We sat, spellbound, tears running down our faces as we listened to their sweet singing. Their voices carried us home, far away from the discomfort and hardship that surrounded all of us.

Then it was time to leave, and as we stood, the children crowded around us again, tugging on our pants, hugging our legs and crying, “Thank you, GI! Thank you, GI!” over and over. We were so overwhelmed that we choked back more tears. Gently, we untangled ourselves from the children and made our way to the door.

As we climbed back into the ambulance, I thought that by all accounts, this holiday should have been miserable, offering nothing but loneliness, bitter cold, some ragtag gifts, a few carols. But as we bounced along the road back to our barracks on the cold, long drive, the night seemed warm and full of promise. It seemed like—Christmas.

Larry Ebsch

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