Last week I introduced a circa 1970 Vietnam War battlefront photograph of a Tiger Division soldier standing proudly in front of some ready-to-roll APCs (armored personnel carriers a.k.a. “battle taxis”). He reminds me vividly of “Hungry Tiger (HT),” the troubled Tiger Division soldier I met on the prowl in Old Jeju City in the Spring of 1973. I recognize, for example, the same sort of menacing panache in the photographed soldier that the annoying and belligerent HT confronted me with on that tense afternoon he chose to swagger into my favorite waterfront rib joint. My previous Jeju World Wide column ended with HT commanding me to follow him outside to some vague destination he had in mind, where we could settle our differences.
So we hoofed it across the bone-strewn floor towards an entrance door that opened onto the western bank of the lower Sanjicheon riverbed – in those days perceived by everyone but the locals to be an open sewer amidst urban squalor. At that spot, a mere stone’s throw from the Old East Gate of medieval Jeju Castle, local history was so rich, palpable and concentrated on certain days that if you breathed too deeply it could torch your lungs.
My friend Bill was right behind me. The three of us had run up quite a bill, which I was obliged to pay because one of my companions was my guest and the other turned out to be a deadbeat and an ingrate. Fortunately I kept a running tab in my rib joint which I always paid promptly on Tuesdays. However, on this occasion it was a Saturday. So I was surprised to see the owner standing behind her cash register with a look of concern and pleading eyes when I passed by her station without pausing on my way out. “Aw, she’s concerned for my safety. How sweet!” was my initial thought. It occurred to me later that she was probably concerned that I owed her a tidy sum and would not be coming back. Not Tuesday. Not ever.
Their 25:1 kill ratio and uncompromising exploits against the Viet Cong and perceived sympathizers in Vietnam had earned Tiger Division troopers notoriety around the world and fame among their peers. Both HT and the soldier in the photograph were proud of their Division’s front line accomplishments over eight years as judged by military standards of all elite fighting forces there. They were legend by 1973. They expected attention and respect. Most of them had never met a Peace Corps Volunteer or seen an unofficial Korean PCV insignia:
Emphatically “lovey-dovey” the symbolism in this insignia gushed with gentle, pacifist sentiments. In contrast, the Tiger Division official insignia worn in Vietnam was an entirely different animal: The jungle tiger stalks its prey then attacks and devours it. This beast is ferocious, uncompromising and remorseless:
Actually Peace Corps and the Tiger Division made a pretty good pair when successfully (as it turned out) deployed against world communism. But I didn’t see it that way back in 1973. Who could?
Returning to the battlefield photograph: I notice that it centers on the fearsome Tiger Division insignia stenciled upon an APC (armored personnel carrier). It is a calculated focus of this soldier’s pose: “Here we come! The Korean Army Tiger Division! Surrender, run or die!”
I have a personal theory about the rapid decline of global Communism, leading to its near-total collapse in 1989. Nobody in the communist world wanted to fight this guy. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s just call him “Tiger 2.”
Odds are that Tiger 2 was born around the time of the Korean War and spent his childhood days sharing the burden of hardscrabble farm labor with his parents and siblings. He had many brothers and sisters. He was neither eldest nor youngest. Perhaps his parents were war refugees and had settled down after the Armistice in 1953 as sharecroppers, and thus they farmed someone else’s land: If so, they were really poor and may have been barely surviving. They probably lived in some remote village far from Seoul. In his mid-teens Tiger 2 may have heeded the impassioned call of President-General Park Chung Hee to rural youths with patriotism, courage and stamina to take up the arts of soldiery in order to escape rural poverty. He, himself, had done so.
A rumor circulating at that time (around 1965) was that escape from rural poverty leading to success via an Army career route began with joining the Tiger Division’s patriotic fight against Communist invaders of South Vietnam. There was a bonus for volunteers and a promise of rapid advancement up the military ranks for survivors who fought with fervor and distinction. There were incentives to kill and not be killed. As noted, combat soldiers of the Tiger Division watched each other’s backs to the tune of a 25:1 kill ratio. And so Tiger 2 ended up being photographed late in the War, proudly standing next to his Division’s well-maintained APCs, in his bathing suit and sporting a huge pistol on his hip:
“Nice butt” you might be thinking – especially if you are a gun nut! This is the conclusion reached by my firearms-savvy colleague Brian. He closely examined this magnified portion of the battlefront photo and reported back to me: “It looks like a 45 ACP 1911 model by the grip angle and the end of the frame that can be seen protruding. It also looks like it has some kind of custom grips maybe ivory or some such stuff.” Brian thus confirms your thought. He elaborated enthusiastically that the “C” in “ACP” stands for “Colt,” as in ‘Colt 45, the gun that won the West’!”
He confirmed it was a U.S.-government-issued sidearm, its 45-calibre bullet being the best blunt force weapon to be had for infantry combat at close quarters. “Anything smaller and you have to shoot twice!” Apparently the U.S. supplied state-of-the-art arms, ammunition, vehicles and service pay to the Tiger Division throughout the Vietnam War. However, The Tiger Division did not want or need, and thus tended to decline or refuse, tactical assistance from the U.S. and their other allies in Vietnam. Indeed, Tiger Division troopers proved battle after battle that they were the experts in tactical jungle warfare.
Brian was not finished: “I heard a story of S Korean troops in Vietnam from a gringo I knew who was there. Apparently a S Korean outfit/unit and the American troops were waiting for helicopters to transport them ten or so miles to fight some Viet Cong troops upon which they had received intelligence. The Korean troops decided it was quicker to run the distance, and they did. Apparently they were paid by the head (dead ones) and they had fought the battle before the Americans ever got there.”
While in Vietnam HT was paid $40 a month. History records that the first units of the ROK Tiger Division began to land at Qui Nonh in the coastal jungle and bush of South Vietnam in 1966, where relieving the U.S. 101st Airborne’s famed “Screaming Eagles.” Once entrenched there they became one of the longest serving allied formations. Their last elements departed for South Korea in March 1973. Tiger 2 in the photograph may have actually been HT in my rib joint for all I know.
What I do know is that the ROK government routed hundreds of Tiger Division soldiers through Jeju Island on their way home from the Vietnam War during the month of April, 1973. They had earned their rest and relaxation. No doubt they needed to “wind-down” from their combat experiences; to “decompress” upon rapidly emerging from that abyss of continuous combat in Vietnam. While they probably deplaned on the outskirts of Moselpo, an army base southwest of Seogwipo, most of them gravitated to roaming the streets of Jeju City day-in and day-out for the entire month of April.
They were angry at America. The answer to my question “Wae geurae?” is no mystery to me now. Tiger Division combat vets fresh out of the jungles of Vietnam arrived on Jeju Island very bitter over their involuntary “retreat” from the Vietnamese battlefield. “Stand your ground and die there if you must. Retreat is no option” was a Tiger Division trademark. Left to their own devices, the soldiers of the ROK Tiger Division would have probably elected fight it out with the Viet Cong to a last stand. Vietnam would be their Alamo.
But didn’t turn out that way: The sudden pullout of allied forces orchestrated by America had trampled on the pride of Tiger Division troopers sent home shy of their final victory over the Communists. Their angry reaction perhaps has a lot to do with the Korean concept of gibun, which I am not qualified to interpret much less explain. Suffice it to say, these combat vets were returning back home to face their families, friends and the public-at-large as losers instead of winners. That hurt. Their “winding down” on Jeju Island amounted to a lot of chairs being tossed about and tables upended in the cheapest of wine houses and tea rooms. In this way Tiger Division stalwarts initially tried to sort out their betrayal by the Americans as well as their personal issues. It could have been worse. I think most of them demonstrated discipline and restraint.
“Gaja!” HT impatiently motioned with his thumb to continue following him downstream and toward the Old Jeju City waterfront. I paused. Bill paused. I said “Wae geurae?” HT turned abruptly on his heels to face us and teetered there on his toes with his hands on his hips, his torso leaning in our direction. His head cocked and his face was sweating and beet red.
It was dusk. We were blocking pedestrian traffic. Some of those busy folks paused and stopped. Some curious patrons had followed us out of the rib joint. They also stood around at a safe distance. In a phrase: A crowd was gathering. I heard a little voice in my head. It was my faithful Moondoggy. He advised: “You can take this guy. He’s short, he’s tired and he’s drunk.”