Harold Beck was born in South Dakota, raised in Washington, and moved around a lot due to farming. Knowing that he would eventually be drafted into the military, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Arriving in Korea with no prior knowledge of the country, he was struck by the atrocities that he saw. He recalls many nights when “Bed Check Charlie” would come to disrupt their camp on the island of Chodo. He argues, however, that the enemy Air Force was much weaker than that of the UN and the Americans. Harold Beck describes the living conditions on the base and vividly remembers a houseboy who later was caught as a spy. He is proud of his service and that of his fellow servicemen, believing that it contributed to the progress of South Korea.
Atrocities in Seoul
Harold Beck’s first impression of Korea was that of “atrocity.” When he drove into Seoul, he remembers how the building were “all shot up” having changed hands three times. However, among the most atrocious memories was that of the bodies hanging off the bridge- new ones were placed there daily.
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Bed Check Charlie
Harold Beck describes “Bed Check Charlie.” Each night a small biplane would come and drop bombs or grenades just around bed time. Their crew moved the lights toward the mountain, and one night Bed Check Charlie flew right into the cliff.
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Assessment of Enemy Air Force
Harold Beck argues that the enemy Air Force was weaker than the American plans. He says that when the enemy planes would come to harass the American troops, they would quickly fly back as soon as the US F86 planes engaged. He heard that these plans were a combination of Russian and Chinese crews that originated north of the Yalu River.
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Choto Island Air Force Base
Harold Beck explains the living conditions in Chodo Island Air Force Base, which was down a hill. There was a large storage unit and chow hall, but the rest of it was tents and bunkers. Someone had to stay on duty all of the time to keep all lines of communication open. Even on the island, Harold Beck remembers that the weather was extremely cold, so cold that the planes landing would be full of ice.
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Harold Beck shows a photograph of a Korean houseboy. This houseboy was at several tents and bunkers and was caught tapping information on the radio line sending information to someone else, assumed to be the enemy Harold Beck said that after that, the houseboy was never seen again, but that they had a close bond. Harold Beck still has a letter that the house boy wrote to his wife.
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H: H-A-R-O-L-D middle initial A Beck B-E-C-K
I: When were you born?
H: January the 2nd, 1928.
I: And where were you born?
H: Isabel, South Dakota.
I: Isabel, could you?
H: I-S-A-B- E-L
Both: South Dakota
I: Tell me about the days you were growing up, with your family, your siblings?
H: Well, we left South Dakota during the depression. Was unable to farm anymore and moved to Washington State when I was nine years old. With there we started a dairy farm. Started out milking 6-8 cows when I left home at 21 we were milking about 120 cows everyday,
H: And then I started uh traveling and working just to get away from the farm. I didn’t want the farm anymore.
I: You didn’t like it?
H: I didn’t like it. Too much every day work. Never had a day off, night or mornings or anything.
I: Is that right?
H: No, no time off from farming.
I: Ohh, tell me about your siblings and your family.
H: I come from a rather large German family. And uh….
H: I had a total of 11 siblings.
H: And I was the second oldest so naturally a lot of the responsibility was on I and my…
H: Brother, older brother and from there I had five sisters and 6 brothers. And uh, we farmed there in Dakota, or in uh, Washington State until shortly before the Korean War broke out.
H: I traveled with a buddy of mine just to get away and do things.
I: When did you finish your school?
H: I finished high school in 1946.
I: What school?
H: Ferndale, Washington
I: Could you spell it?
H: Ferndale F E R N D A L E, that’s in Washington.
I: And then you’ve been travelling around?
H: I’ve been. I started traveling around from 1946 until 1950 when the Korean war broke out. And then that’s when I decided well those first people who are being drafted are going right to the front lines so I went down and joined the Army Air Corps.
I: So you enlisted?
H: I enlisted.
H: In Seattle, Washington.
H: I enlisted in the Army Air Corp, there was no Air Force then yet. And uh, so instead of doing three years. I had to sign up for four.
I: So when did you, exactly. Do you remember?
H: Uh, August 22, 1950.
I: How did you leave home by traveling around? You said you were sick and tired of farming. And you didn’t have enough money right?
I: How did you? How did you?
H: We just traveled and worked. I and a buddy. A buddy that I met. We traveled and done anything we could do to get money. Worked on wheat farms, dairy farms, uh or chicken farms, cotton farms, potato farms.
I: So you still working on farming?
H: We were still working in farming, traveling and farming. Worked at the oil wells for a while. Anything we could do to get money to travel and keep going.
I: Any particular place that you still remember that was really good?
H: Oh yes, there’s big oil well fire worked at in Big Springs, Texas. Worked 21 days and being that it was an emergency we both cleared uh, over $2100.
H: And that was a lot of money in those days.
I: Must have been an experience to you, right?
H: Oh yes, we had a lot of experiences. We drove trucks, we drove bull dozers on the farms and in the oil fields.
I: When did you come to learn about the breakout of the Korean War and how?
H: It was when my buddy got his draft notice and I knew or reenlistment notice and I knew I was getting mine next. So that is when I went down and joined the Army Air Corp.
I: Did you know anything about Korea?
H: No I never, never heard of Korea.
H: I was just out of high school doing nothing and traveling for three years and we didn’t up didn’t keep up with the news.
I: So you didn’t know anything about Korea, where it was?
I: No, ok. And, and you came to know about the Korean War. Were you not nervous or afraid that you drag into the war and being killed?
H: Oh yes, because but then it was a matter of being drafted or enlisting.
H: And I figured if I got enlisted I would have a choice of where I went. Rather than them sending me
into the Army sector of it. And um, I joined the Army Air Corp and instead of going to the front lines I went a 120 miles ahead of them.
H: Which was a….
I: Good choice. [laughs]
H: So, but I did have a warm bed and a roof over my head every night. Even though it was just a bunker or a tent. Instead of sleeping in a trench.
I: So where did you get the basic military training?
H: I left Seattle, Washington went by train to San Antonio, Texas. And was there for should have been six weeks but I spent 5 weeks there and then got shipped out to a trade school in Cheyenne Wyoming.
I: What did you learn there?
H: It was basic telephone and radio communications.
I: Um uh..
H: And I stayed there for uh 9 months.
H: And then got shipped out to uh San Bernardino, California Norton Air Force Base and um there we got further training and on hands experience.
I: Um uh
H: I stayed there for a year and a about a year.
H: And then I got my notice to go overseas.
I: What did you learn from Norton Air Base?
H: It was just basic communications on how to how all the radar equipment worked and on hands radar telephone whatever.
I: And when did you leave for Korea?
H: In um, I think it was September of 1952.
I: From where to where?
H: Went um, left out of Pittsburgh, California went by troop boat to Yokohama, Japan and from Yokohama, Japan we flew into Seoul, Seoul Korea or Kimpo.
I: What was your unit?
H: Um, I was with the 5thAir Force. And we were with the 608 A AC and W.
I: What is AC and W?
H: it’s um, what was the Air Force Air Warning Communications
H: Communications systems.
I: So tell me about the first impression of Korea when you landed in Kimpo in 1950, 1952?
H: In ‘52 my first impression was as we went through town, gee these buildings are all shot up they said well they have changed hands three different times, no wonder the buildings are all shot up.
H: And then we went on out to Seoul air air base there and my first impression was when we crossed the river there was some men hanging off the bridge and I said the next morning why don’t they take those people down? They said they do every morning. They take those people down and put new one’s up there. These are North Koreans that they were hanging. And that was my first impression.
I: That’s the dead bodies?
H: Yes. That were there.
I: People just hanging those dead bodies over the bridge?
I: For what?
H: I don’t know but they hung they would Jesus North Koreans were some kind of atrocities and the guys says well they take ‘em down every morning.
H: So, I and another guy we went down the fence line as far as we could to watch that bridge at uh in the morning. And sure enough here come a big truck out there and that was my very first impression of Korea.
H: Yes, and the downtown Seoul from Kimpo into Seoul Air Base how everything there was nothing that was in you know usable and how hard the people were trying to make a go over there.
H: And we were riding on the back of a deuce-and-a-half truck home from Kimpo into Seoul.
I: Did you see Korean people in the street?
H: Oh yes.
I: Tell me about, how did they look?
H: They were busy, what got to me is they had their oxen and their horses tied at the curb and yet the little bit of water that was running down the curb they were washing some of their fruits and vegetables.
H: Not realizing I guess are the only water that they had to wash these fruits and vegetables and get something to eat. But, if my first memory into Seoul was then I stayed in Seoul for two days before I they flew me north into Chodo.
I: Where is it?
H: Chodo is about a hundred and twenty-eight miles North of the 38thparallel. It’s a small island on the West Coast of Korea. About two and a half miles off the North Korean shore.
H: And there we had an early warning radar system. We controlled all of, our unit controlled all of
H: F-86 and some planes that went up over North Korea.
I: How many were in the Chodo of your team?
H: There probably about 35 all total.
I: Hmm, what kind of equipment?
H: We were had a Air Force there and we had four or five Marines and they were for our gunnery protection.
H: And uh ..
I: What kind of Radar?
H: Oh, I don’t remember what kind it was we had uh. We were sitting right out on the point just facing North Korea there and that’s where we controlled all the planes that went up over [INAUDIBLE]. Any jet that got shot down would try to make it back as far as our island for rescue.
H: We had a PT boat there for go out and rescue plus a helicopter.
I: And did you see many North Korean MIGS? Were you able to?
H: I did see one or two but mostly it would watch it on radar you’d see him there.
I: How often, how many for example?
H: Uh there would be mostly at night. That we’d see them or spot them. But, we had a lot of what we called was “Bed-Check Charlies”.
H: They come in there to disrupt our, our radar operations. They will come in low right on the water so that our radar couldn’t detect them and they’d be just over the top of us before we knew it they would drop hand grenades or a phosphorus bomb or just drop a bomb.
H: There were little Bi-wing planes that come right in ten feet off the water.
I: Could you spell that “Bed Check Charlie” for the audience.
H: “Bed Check Charlie”?
H: He was a little bi-plane that flew real low right over the water and he would come up over our Island and drop phosphorus bomb or drop a regular bomb or hand grenade. Anything to disrupt us and we had to quickly when we heard them had to quickly turn off the lights.
I: Was it MIG or different aircraft?
H: The “Bed Check Charlie” was just a little bi-plane a small plane that flew right on the water but.
I: It’s like a glider.
I: Was it?
H: What was it?
I: Like a glider?
H: It was a like small crop duster.
I: So, it’s not a MIG.
H: Oh no, these were not MIGS that were coming in to destruct us.
I: And could you spell it? “Bed check Charlie”.
H: “Bed Check Charlie”. They always come in at bedtime.
I: Bedtime. So, B E D?
H: B E D.
I: Not B A D?
H: No, “Bed Check Charlie” come right in at bedtime.
I: Why is it “Bed check Charlie”?
H: Because they always come in to harass us just about time for bed check. Just getting dark and we’d turn out all the lights and…
H: All the lights turned out and then these lights put them on the edge of a cliff over there just that near the bottom of the cliff. Well “Bed Check Charlie” didn’t realize that and he flew right into the cliff one night.
I: Tell me about the enemy Air Force. Was it really there was it really strong? Tell me about it.
H: The enemy air force would come down and harass the American Troops and then
H: Soon as the F-86 sabres or American planes would get on them, they would dash over across the Yalu River and our radar was not supposed to follow them there and it was always so lost in flight. Soon as our F-86 would get on the tales of the MIG 15s they dash across the river and we’d always have to record them as lost in flight until they come back across then we’d pick them up again.
I: So, the old O’s MIG 15 originated North of the Yalu River. Was that Chinese or Russian?
H: I don’t know. I didn’t know for sure whether it was Chinese or Russian. I heard it was a combination of both.
I: Was not North Korean though?
I: No, what was the forces of North Korean I mean the enemies Air force compared too?
I: United Nation and the Americans? Was it really big? Do they really in competition in some sense fair what a strong weak? Tell me about how strong the planes were..
H: What I saw on radar in Chodo was though..
I: What I heard and what I read was that the enemies Air Force was really weak compared to the United Nations?
H: Yes, they were weak and our planes could outmaneuver the MiG15. I watched that on uh the F-86 could outmaneuver the MiG 15s which I watched on radar sometimes as they would you know get into fights and get into dog fights and shoot each other down but I was over there the day that we had to the defector we carried him on radar teared down into Seoul landed on the Air-Field the wrong way and uh
I was on uh duty that day and uh someplace along the line where they got orders or had that too that this plane was defecting because broke clear away from all the rest of the troops and happened to be an Air Force command unit the day that they’re at Chodo that day that he defected. So
I: And you were in Chodo right?
H: Yes, Chodo Island.
I: Tell me about the life in Chodo and where did you sleep what did you eat?
H: We had our radar unit out on the end. We had to come up over a little quite a hill and there was our compound in there. Our living quarters we had
H: A big cafeteria their mess hall and then we had a big storage unit and the rest of it was just tents and bunkers that we slept in and if you were lucky enough to uh be able to trade for somebody that’s already had built a bunker where you could get that and you’d have sand bags up and round everything but I was walking up and down this hill two three times a day to get to the radar unit, communications unit and then back to the mess halls again.
H: But, we had to have somebody on duty all the time in our communications deal and uh we had uh five people that were helping us see to with the communications keep all the lines between the radar and the tune occasions radios open and if we got shelled or anything
H: Then, all of those lines would be cut or shrapnel in them and we’d have to replace them and that was quite a challenge sometimes.
I: How was weather?
I: Even in the island?
H: Yes, got pictures of ice floats that were 15 20 feet high. Saw the oceans wherever froze over so I’m trying walk across from North Korea to our island
H: And then they went we had to go through there with uh boats to break that ice up and I had tremendous tides big tides over there 15 20 feet tides at times so our plane that brought supplies and that was c-46 or a c-47 and they landed on the beach on the low tide.
I: Without runway?
H: Yes, we didn’t have a run way on our island. They would land on the beach on low tide and they were always full of big ice floats.
H: C-54 and C-47 C-46, were our main planes
H: They come from other bases would fly about 10 feet off the water I mean you’d think sometimes going up there the waves the splash was going to hit the bottom.
I: Hm. Were there any Koreans in total?
H: There was a little village down there they’re probably maybe a hundred and fifty Koreans on the island.
I: And what was the relationship with them?
H: Most of them were farmers on the island and quite a few of them worked for the Air Force there had all the house boys and the women had done the laundry for the GIS and house boys would take own to them.
I: How much did you pay for laundry and houseboy?
H: We generally paid ‘em in uh rations that we got. But, because we weren’t supposed to pay ‘em in American scrip and uh while we were over there though the Korean money devaluated so much. I mean they would bring in a shoebox of money to buy a sack of flour and uh I remember when it devalued they cancelled all the old money out and give them all this new money and it was it was quite a quite a exchange. It took a while and it was really, really confusing for everybody to cash in this money.
H: I still got quite a bit of it.
I: Yeah, I want to see that.
I: And you have a very unusual pictures that you yourself took with your friends and that’s really valuable to show how Korea was 65 years ago to the young generations here in the United States. So I appreciated that you brought the memorabilia with you.
I: How was the Koreans there in Chodo? Were they severely suffering from the war or were they sort of isolated on the small island?
H: They were sort of isolated but they were hard workers. When would uh, government would bring in a LST for supplies they’d bring one in for the Koreans and one in for the GIS.
H: And we’d uh the Americans would pay the Koreans in rice sometimes. So they’d bring in these two LST’s and the Koreans could unload there LST’s quicker by manual labor on their backs and shoulders then the GIS could with trucks having the Koreans load the trucks and unload them. They could unload that LST quicker.
I: Were they good?
H: They were fast and worked hard.
I: Um, So what were you thinking when you were there in Chodo and you didn’t know anything about Korea before you were there detecting and keeping track of all those notes I mean enemy Air Force, what were you thinking to yourself?
H: Gee. We’ve come close are they going to win?
H: How can they win no more than these people have right here? What little that the Koreans were doing on that island that can help the North Koreans. But, we had house boys that were there that we had 14, 15 years old that we found afterwards that he was a traitor and they found him at night picking all this information that he would get from the GIS then
H: He was radioing it to somebody else. I got pictures of that little house boy.
H: Well they’d do, they’d tap some of our lines our communication lines for the telephone and they would they were transmitting that uh that by uh small radio.
I: That means he was a North Korean spy.
I: How was that happening, I mean he was not coming from North Korea right he
I: He was there in Chodo right?
H: Yes, but his brother was in North Korea. I wrote a letter every night home to my wife.
I: Oh you were married?
H: We were married just before I went overseas. I got married on a Christmas vacation. I got married just before I went overseas so my wife could get benefit.
I: What was his name?
H: All I remember is Kim.
I: When did you leave Chodo?
H: I left Chodo in November of 1953.
H: From there picked up my wife in San Bernardino California and my next base was Eglin Florida.
I: So when did you arrive in California?
H: We came back on a Uh
H: I didn’t want to come back by, we came back by ship because our planes had a real poor record there and so I came back on a regular troop ship into San Francisco.
I: And when was it?
H: It was in November..
I: In November of ’53.
H: And you met your wife there?
H: Tell me about it, the day that you met your wife there.
H: The day that I met her, we went down and brought a brand new car on a 30 day vacation leave and then I had to report to Eglin Florida.
I: Have you been back to Korea?
I: Do you know what happened to Korea nah?
I: Tell me what do you know?
H: Well we see, I’ve seen a lot of pictures of different people that have went back on there re-visit program. But, I’ve uh my wife never wanted to fly back overseas, so I could never get her to go with me.
H: So uh I never did go back to Korea. And uh since then my wife is gone after 60 years.
I: Oh I’m sorry. Harold would you please show the picture of that house boy Kim. You said there was North Korean spy.
H: Kim was our houseboy at several different tents and bunkers there.
H: And uh one night someone caught him taping a telephone line and radioing the information to somebody else and they took him away and I’ve never seen him since. Never did see him after that.
I: Was you close to him?
H: Oh yes he done, yes he washed uh had my clothes washed made my bunk, swept the floor, in our tents and our bunkers.
I: That’s very unfortunate.
H: He wrote me a letter explaining to me where his family lived and it took me years to interpret that letter and I’m not really sure whether whoever interpreted actually told me what was on there because they stammered and stuttered for quite a bit reading that letter and uh explaining it to me.
I: And you still keep the letter written to by him to your wife?
H: Yes and I’ve had that over sixty plus years.
I: We should have that letter scanned. Students from high school can learn Korean. There is good motivation for them to learn Korean and decipher what he wrote to your wife. What is the legacy of Korean War Veterans?
H: Hell, I don’t know.
I: What do you think is the contribution that you and other young American men and women did made to Korea and for the relationship between this country?
H: I think that if uh the American people had not went over there to help the Korea, they would be in the same position as North Korea is right today which would be a dictator rulership. And the people of South Korea have really taken
H: hold and have helped themselves.
I: What do you think about the future of North and South Korean. Do you think that they will be reunited or what will happen to them?
H: It’s hard for me to say that South Korea will keep on advancing there making tremendous advances and they’re doing a lot of it on their own the industries that they are developing.
H: I do know that some of the products that they receive are as good if not better than the American-made products.
I: Thank you very much again and please share your memorabilia with my foundation so that they can learn from you okay, would you do that?
End of recorded session
Seoul City Hall
Ernie Pyle Theater: Tokyo, Japan