For the entire 52-week account of Dr. Nemeth’s time on Jeju Island as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1970s, you can download his new e-book free of charge. JejuWorldWide would like to thank Dr. Nemeth again for his generous contribution. — Ed.
I met my father for the first time when I was three. The War in the Pacific had recently ended. Dad, an Army Captain in full uniform with medals all a-dangle, barged unexpected through the front door of my grandfather’s house in Columbia, Ohio and grabbed my screaming mother. I ran like hell.
Dad and his unit had spent the war years mainly dislodging entrenched Japanese from their Solomon Island pill boxes and strongholds. From Guadalcanal to Bougainville his division fought tooth and nail up the island chains toward the Japanese Homeland. Dad pre-war was a college boxer/football player of some repute and was looking ahead to a promising professional sports career when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He enlisted immediately and was shipped to the South Pacific. He spent some time on Fiji. Then the Army deployed him to Henderson Field on Guadalcanal as an MP. While there, Dad became the personal bodyguard and jeep driver for General Alexander “Sandy” Patch.
When Patch was reassigned to the European Theater to beat back the Germans he invited his bodyguard along. Dad opted instead to stay behind and “slug it out” with the Japanese “all the way to Tokyo, if that’s what it took” as he once told me with patriotic conviction. On Aug. 6, 1945, a crew of U.S. airmen dropped “Little Boy” on Hiroshima. Three days later “Fat Man” fell on Nagasaki. Japan surrendered almost on the eve of an Allied invasion of Japan via Cheju Island, which was a strategic stepping stone at the threshold of Japan proper. At that time 10 Japanese Army divisions comprised of 100,000 defenders were deeply dug into the flanks of Halla Mountain anticipating the imminent arrival of the Allied strike force. But the Allied invasion of Cheju Island was called off and the American troops instead headed back home to the States. We live in a small world with no shortage of irony: my Dad, who volunteered to join the Army in 1942, seemed on track to set foot on Cheju Island long before my own arrival there as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1973.
My sister keeps a photo of my Dad from his Army days on Bougainville. He is bare-chested, wearing a grass skirt, and smiling. A lot of blood was spilled in the Solomon Islands campaign but he never spoke of it. He earned the Purple Heart, but never said how. I like to think that at some dramatic juncture during my Dad’s wartime service he looked into his shaving mirror and promised to himself: “If I ever live through this mess I’m going to go back to Ohio and grab my wife and kid and make something of myself!”
This is exactly what he did. Thanks to the GI Bill he quickly carved out a career that took us from Pennsylvania to the West Coast in 1948. We moved into a new house on Victory Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley in 1950. A year or so later a truck pulled up out front and delivered our new Admiral television set. I was 10 years old. We plugged it in. We spun the dials for weeks, exploring our options. Dad became a fan of “Victory At Sea” and began to revisit the war he thought he had left behind. Mom got hooked on “I Love Lucy.” I searched for exotic adventure personified.
In the summer of 1952 I found what I was looking for. His name was “China Smith.”
Anyone of any age having a pulse in 1952, much less having a raging river of wanderlust flowing through their veins, probably sat mesmerized when Dan Duryea appeared in the role of “China Smith” on the tube. His presence, the characterizations of his fellow actors and many other aspects of the production and execution of the program easily explain why the “China Smith” television action-adventure series had such a huge following for several years.
In the program, Smith is a con man on the run, an Irish-American expatriate who negotiates a dangerous living in and around the South China Sea between a cloudy past and an uncertain future. Smith is back-alley street-smart and moves furtively about in the shadows amidst the informal and underground economies of the Far East. He hires out as a private detective from time to time. Sentimental, yet a bit of a sleaze, he survives on other people’s money, their short memories and their forgiveness. Many of his acquaintances and customers – both men and women – are rogues, and so he confronts life-threatening crises week after week.
His vagabond bases of operation are hideaway “offices” located deep within the warrens of tiny urbanized near-mainland islands – Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau. Although Smith projects semi-professionalism, perhaps competence, and a trace of a genteel background, he goes about disheveled in a loosely-fitting white tropical suit, wearing both a tie and Panama hat. He smokes and drinks heavily, mostly in dark dens of iniquity.
Given Smith’s lanky, taciturn, tough-guy demeanor and the context of his everyday surroundings, a stranger could be forgiven for guessing that he is something of a soldier of fortune. But no: China Smith may be a devil-may-care-adventurer with an eye for beautiful women, but he is devoid of that black hole in the mercenary ethos that abides any sort of torture, rape, pillage and/or murder in exchange for money.
At age 10 I already lived vicariously in awe of a slew of comic book portrayals of American hard guys who shared a Boy Scout ethos and carved out dangerous, exciting, adventurous and mysterious lives for themselves abroad in exotic places, including Asia. My Uncle Pete in Youngstown kept boxes of comic books and reams of cartoon serials clipped from Sunday newspapers dating from the 30s stashed in boxes in his attic that he would let me rummage through and read whenever I visited. There was Captain Easy, Terry (and the Pirates) and many more. None of these action-adventure characters in my estimation had a fraction of the combined panache, mystery and cleverness that I admired so much in the China Smith character portrayed by Dan Duryea. I found Smith authentically human and a breath of fresh air in a comics-world overpopulated by superheroes. It was his appearance and his story as presented in this new-fangled electronic media format called television that arrived on my doorstep in the early 50s that sucked me in and made me a fan for a lifetime. Even as a child I figured that if I could not be China Smith I might look forward to meeting him or his spitting image somewhere, somehow, some day.
Imagine my surprise and relief to encounter China Smith lurking about in Cheju City a few months after being sent down to the island by Peace Corps: