Richard Higa was born in Kilauea, Hawaii (Main Island) on August 9, 1930. After graduating from Kauai High School in 1948, he enlisted in the US Army and attended communications school to become a radio operator. He was deployed to Korea in October of 1950 at Inchon. He was assigned to several units including the 8th Army, IROK Corps at Camp Walker, near Daegu. He left Korea in January 1952. After the war, he returned to Korea several times including a 1970 revisit. Today, he lives in Hawaii and is active in the KWVA.
"Friendly Fire, They Call It"
Richard Higa describes an incident when allied Australian warplanes accidentally strafed his unit's position. This misidentified them as North Korean forces. During the incident, he was wounded by shrapnel.
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Korean Refugee Retreat, 1950
Richard Higa describes witnessing streams of Korean Refugees fleeing south in late 1950. He talks about the difficult terrain and conditions that the refugees encountered that led to many of them dying during the journey.
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Astounded by Korean Progress
Richard Higa talks about his amazement at the progress of South Korea from the perspective of his 1970 revisit. He makes remarks about Seoul as well as the South Korean economy.
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Transcribed by ANDREW BEITER on 6/9/18
[Beginning of Recorded Material]
R: My name is Richard Higa, spelled R-I-C-H-A-R-D, Higa, H-I-G-A. I was born in Kilauea, [Kauai], that’s on [unintelligible] island, August the 9th, 1930. That makes me 84 years old.
I: Your parents? Your siblings?
R: I’m second generation, our parents came from the old country.
R: My dad [and] mom also came from [the] old country.
R: Yeah, Japan. I can’t tell you the exact dates because I don’t know. Anyway, they lived on [Tauai], and my dad was working for a man named Mr. Fernandez, who ran a farm.
R: [He] was something like a do-it-all, and in those days they had horse racing in the territory. Mr. Fernandez had a horse farm, and they used to have horse racing at the county farm [unintelligible] Honolulu, Kauai and Maui. My old man was a jockey for him as well. So I recall we had a horse saddle with the family for a long time, although we didn’t own a horse. [Laughs]
I: You don’t ride [horses]?
R: No, no.
I: You don’t?
R: Well, I do, but I don’t go out and look for [her], riding a horse. Anyway, while living on [Kauai], he befriended a man called Mr. Mariyoshi, who was actually leasing properties, especially hillsides, where the pineapple companies could not raise pineapple because of the terrain, and they couldn’t use machines.
R: Mr. Mariyoshi had pineapple farms on. . . actually one on Maui, really, and two on Kauai. He spent [a] lot of time working with Mr. Mariyoshi raising pineapples in the pineapple fields.
R: Like I said, the pineapple companies had [unintelligible] flat properties, but Mr. Mariyoshi would lease hillsides and be able to raise pineapples.
R: Now, you wonder, “How did he run those machines?” Well, the only thing he did was he [unintelligible] the [unintelligible] of the blades on a machine, so you walk on a hillside just like being flat property. He was sort of a machinist, so he could improvise plows and everything.
R: Pioneer, yeah, and he was successful. [On] one of the properties in Kilauea, my dad was [unintelligible] the manager, but my dad had an advantage over a lot of immigrants coming in because he could read [and] he could write; most of them didn’t do that then.
R: Because of that advantage, too, his off-hours were spent with immigrants not able to read or write, sitting down with my dad, and formatting letters or this and that, to send to the old country, but that led to, you know, the saki comes out [laughs] and they talk and [start] drinking. By the end of the interview, by dad was probably drunk, or this and that; that continued for too long, I guess.
R: He got some kind of a stomach ailment —
I: Mm-hmm, okay.
R: And he died. . . just when the war started, 1941.
I: What school did you graduate — high school? And when?
R: Kauai High School —
R: Kauai High School, [Leouee], Hawai’i in 1948.
R: I was fortunate in that, you know, because of the loss of my dad, I was looking for a father figure, and every place I [went] to school, I had a teacher as a father figure, but Mr. [Ohmori] at Kauai High School was the instructor for the English class and also the school paper [and the] school annual, you know, the yearbook. Mr. Ohmori was also a World War Two veteran; after the war, he went to school [and] he became a teacher, and he was a teacher at Kauai High School.
R: He told us, the class, [unintelligible], “Hey, you local guys, you cannot speak English or write English properly, but to get ahead, you gotta buckle down on English. Be good at it.” That was the lecture he gave to [unintelligible], because I don’t know whether you’ve experienced [Pija] — a lot of the localites, especially out in the country, they speak English, but it’s not good English.
R: They call them Pija, but that was the language of Hawai’i immigrant children. I took Mr. Ohmori’s work to heart, and I liked what he was saying. He said, “Look, you local guys, to get ahead you gotta be good in English, written or spoken English,” and that got into my head, so I spent time with our school’s yearbook and newspaper for my junior and senior years.
I: Very good.
R: He arranged for me to write for sports, so during my senior year, he got me to write, covering high school sports, for the local newspaper under my byline. The compensation was 25 cents per column inch — you know, one inch of a column [was] 25 cents.
I: After graduation?
R: No, no, no, while going to school —
I: Very good!
R: Covering high school sports.
R: While I was going to high school, maybe in a month’s time, was just getting several dollars for my sportswriting.
I: Did you know anything about Korea? Did you learn about Korea in your high school, or —
R: Well, I tell you this, geography was not one of my favorite subjects. Fortunately, during the war years, we had an atlas in the atlas in the house.
R: We had probably three or four book [unintelligible], one was an atlas, and of course I wasn’t in the war, but all the newspapers and magazines that covered World War Two all over the Pacific and this and that — I used to follow on the map where [unintelligible]. That kind of helped me in geography, I like geography.
I: That’s how you came to North Korea?
R: Well, I heard it, you know. Of course, Korea and Manchuria [were] part of Japan in those days, but I knew where Korea was, I knew where Manchuria was.
R: Anyway, part of the thing was that the Mongolians at one time owned almost all of Asia, from the east coast of China all the way to almost the Middle East, you know. At that time, too, I learned about China itself being beaten by the Mongoloids, [they beat] the Koreans, whatever it is.
R: In fact, I think they even — I don’t know whether they took over Japan, but they made attempts even going to Japan, but that was Mongolia, the old Mongolia. Mongolia still is a country, but right now it’s not [tied] to the ocean, it’s kind of inland — probably all the wastelands of Asia —
R: [are] controlled by Mongolia today.
I: When did you enlist [in] the military?
R: I enlisted in — well actually, I was going to enlist right after high school. We had a bunch of guys, and the guys that went — they went, and they were the [early] ones killed in action in Korea, because they train in Schofield here. It’s a one-way street to Korea, Schofield Barracks here. That is why the casualty rate for Hawai’i became the highest in the nation.
R: I was supposed to be in the early group but I like football, and I don’t know whether you’ve heard of barefoot football in Hawai’i? We had local teams for different towns, and they played but with no shoes, [laughs] bare feet. I was asked to stay one more year, one more season, 1948, to play for the [Kaloa] team, because the coach was also an assistant at the high school. He said, “Hey! You got a strong arm, why don’t you play one more season [for him]?”
R: So I did. This was 1948, but when 1948 came around, I had already enlisted, and I got into the military. In the meantime, the guys that went ahead of me finished the basic [training] and they were on their way to Japan, 24th Division in Kyushu. That is why, too, they were the first to go and the first to die.
I: So you belonged to [the] 24th Division?
R: No, no, my friends went to —
I: Your friends.
I: What —
R: When you go [into] the military, they give you an aptitude test, and they told me, “With your aptitude test, you shouldn’t be going to infantry.” They arranged for me to go to communications school, so I was sent to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey — there’s a signal school over there, signal call.
R: I spent 13 months at a signal school, and I graduated in August 1949.
R: The war was going on in Korea.
R: You’ve got most of the graduates going to Korea, but because of the need for communication types, the military — this is the U.S. Military, of course — we didn’t have a separate Air Force, it was called the Air Core, part of the U.S. Army. They wanted to fly the guys [who] were [finished in] signal school to Korea, all the way, but they didn’t have enough aircraft.
R: You know what they did? They [contacted] the Canadian Air Force and got them to provide the air transports that we use for parachute jumpers — you know, with the [bucket] seats on the side. They put us on — and you know, by the way, while this was going on, the U.S. did not have enough airplanes for air flights, so they — I don’t know whether they borrowed or rented the Canadian Air Force.
R: [They were] not maintained properly, and every week at least one is [unintelligible] land in the Canadian Rockies — [ancient] travel, this and that. One of those planes was one of [the planes] that I had to get on. We did get on — [we] went to Anchorage, then [we] had to land in Shemya. Shemya is a little island in the Aleutian [laughs]. [It was] some kind of ancient travel or whatever. I could be dead today, but a lot of guys died in it. It’s not announced that the U.S. rented defective aircrafts from the Canadians and used them for air transport.
R: They needed air transport. [It would] take too long for the boats they had [where] they put all the infantrymen; the special [military] were all in aircraft. I finally reached Japan and eventually —
I: When was this?
R: This was July of 1950.
I; So you arrived in Japan —
R: Japan, for processing, and they put us on a ship loaded with infantry guys to land in Incheon.
R: This was late October of 1950.
R: We landed at Incheon but, you know, the Chinese had already entered the war up north — they were coming down. I don’t know whether you’ve heard of [Eskon] City?
R: It’s between Seoul and. . . .
R: We were there for a couple days and they couldn’t decide what to do with us because the unit station in Seoul was saying, “Get out! Get out!”
I: What division [were you working under]?
R: Our signal battalion reported directly to [Aytom] Headquarters. Of course, you know Aytom had three [unintelligible]: [I Call, 9 Call and 10 Call], and the Republic of Korea [was] I Call There’s a makeover [unintelligible].
I: Tell me about your technical duties that you served.
R: My MOS, my specialty, is signalman, radio communications. Radio communications up to that time was all by Morse code — bee-bee-bee, bee-ba-bee-ba-bee-ba.
I: Morse code.
R: This is the mechanization of communication — 60 words per minute teletype machine, that was it and that was new. I was in one of those units.
R: Actually, they had a deuce-and-a-half [unintelligible] with a shelter in, and they had typewriters, teletypes. [Sent-outs] and receive, and also the radio transmitter, receiver transmitter, in the unit mobile. It’s a mobile unit. Our battalion, 304 single battalion, was a support unit to Aytom Headquarters, so we had the guys at the headquarters then and the guys out in the field.
R: I Call, 9 Call, 10 Call — the U.S. — and the ROK I Call We supported [I ROK Call]
I: Where were you located?
R: Have you heard of Anseong?
R: Anseong —
R: It’s right south of [Yondonpull].
R: Yeah. [Laughs] They were saying that the I Call in retreat, we don’t have the headquarters there, but they blew up the bridge that crosses the Han River.
R: We were not [unintelligible], [we] waited, waited, waited, and then one day — you know, this [is] already past January 1st, 1951 — this military advisory group. . . the U.S. advised the Korean Army. One of the [majors] came in and he [said], “What the hell are you guys doing here? Get the hell out of there! [unintelligible] Chinese [unintelligible] coming down the road, huh?”
R: We went out of [the] way because we were waiting for I Call, but like I said they blew the bridge down, they couldn’t [go through], so I Call people headed to the central sector to try and skirt around because there was no business anymore. Anyway, we were told to go all the way down to [Taigu]. Taigu was headquarters for [Aytomee Ria]. We got down there and then we had to be assigned. We were assigned to the I Rock Call on the east coast.
R: Now, I don’t know whether you’re aware about when the U.S. pushed the North Koreans all the way up to the [unintelligible] this and that. There are segments of South Korea — mountains [which were] still in control of [the] North Koreans, you know. We couldn’t get what I call [Short Gun] people [Laughs] to help us, so we stranded [unintelligible] waiting, waiting, waiting. They said, “You guys gotta go on your own.”
R: The east coast, the road with nothing [unintelligible]. We got a [TEMA] a rig with the communication units — a [cabinet], really, with two teletypes, transmitters, receivers. The roads were not that good on the east coast, so our [unintelligible] figured we can go inland, go up north and then back to the coast. There was a South Korean soldier [who said], “No, no, no, no, no!
R: “You cannot go in those mountains. They [the North Koreans] control [them], [there are] North Korean guerillas in the hills,” so we had to back off. It took us three days on rocky road, this and that, and of course no food, even, huh? [Laughs] That’s dangerous too, but we had no choice. We were told to go up there, and we wound up in [Seokcho] — Seokcho, North Korea. There was controlled by the ROK army. The ROK army had about 10 or 15 Americans.
R: They were the advisory group — MAG, Military Advisory Group — at headquarters [unintelligible]. The rest are all Koreans; that was the I ROK Call. I was there for about six months, and of course the war really — I’m talking about frontline [type] combat: pushing army, pushing army. [It] lasted only about a year. The rest of the time until 1953 was the North Koreans [or] Chinese trying to push the east side below the 38th, but they couldn’t.
R: Of course, the war was going on, but it was not really a big combat push. They finally gave up — they couldn’t do anything about moving their Demarc[ation] Line south of the 38th. No way, no way.
I: When did you leave Korea?
R: January of ’52. . . ’52. Of course, the war was declared — the armistice [was] declared [in] ’53, July ’53.
I: Oh yeah. What were you thinking when you were in Korea? [You were in the] middle of nowhere, and you’re fighting. . . these North Koreans. What were you thinking? Did you worry yourself —
R: Well, we had some scary moments, too, because we had to go to get support stuff, you know — food, whatever we needed — and we had to go to the infantry guys, [which] are not. . . .
R: I even saw the ROK army, too, with their Chinese prisoners coming down. Anyway, enough of what goes on in a war zone, of course [unintelligible] right below the front line. Looking back, I feel fortunate that I was able to come back, because there was a time when we had two Australia or New Zealand T-51 fighters, two of them.
R: [They] flew right above us, and they [unintelligible] two times, you know. They thought we were North Koreans, I don’t know why, when they had the advisory group about 200 yards away. A little piece of metal hit me on the leg over here, but that’s about it. [unintelligible] We could have died because if they made another [pass-in] somebody would have died.
R: [They] took out our generator, so we had no generator — we couldn’t communicate in. It happened several times. Some guys were saying even on our front lines [that] they were [unintelligible] by even the U.S. sometimes. Friendly fire, they called it.
I: Collateral damage.
R: Mistakes happen, yeah, [laughs] mistakes happen.
I: Why do you think this is being regarded as forgotten, the Korean War?
R: Not in my eyes. [Laughs]
I: I know.
R: People were dying.
R: Like I said, I had very close friends that died over there.
I: Why is it being forgotten in the United States?
R: Well, maybe it’s the fact, too, that, you know, the United Nations was already there, and they were saying that the United Nations is the one that will not permit any more wars to take place. Of course, when they went there, Truman on his own made the decision to have American troops, not the United Nations.
R: Of course, we still have the United Nations, but we still have wars going on. You know, when World War One ended, we were supposed to have a World Court do decide all [this] political stuff, [but] they disbanded too.
I: What was the most difficult thing during your service in the Korean War?
R: I’ll tell you this: I wish I could have seen [a] war zone. Of course, I’ve seen Americans wounded at [Choonchong] — I went to Choonchong several times.
R: It’s sort of a base. I’ve seen wounded KIA [too], but seeing the Korean populace, what they had to go through — that, really, I cannot forget because this is [unintelligible] the full retreat of 19 — that would be 1950. . . you know, when the Chinese entered the war.
R: It was nearly winter.
R: We go on the hill, and of course the Korean civilians evacuating [were] not allowed on the highways; they were strictly for military. We go on this hill, little hill, we were waiting for — this is south of the Han — we were waiting for I Call [unintelligible] to show up, but [then everybody showed up]. We go on a hill and see snow on the ground, we see a river of black: civilians. [There were] children crying. In the morning, you get up, you see [that] children died during a retreat.
R: They were frozen to death, actually. All over the rice fields. You know, you see [unintelligible], he has this A-frame, I don’t know what it was. His [family appliance] or whatnot. A load on his back, struggling up [a] snow-covered hill, toppling, standing up, going in, day after day after day. This is the retreat, the 1950 retreat.
R: [They left] because they experienced the Communists taking over, so by now the Communists [were] coming again, and they were ordered [to] get out, or whatever it is. I see this family suffering — the kids, and oh the kids, all night they were crying, this and that. We [could] hear them, [they were] right adjacent to us.
I: You still remember that experience?
R: Oh, yeah, yeah. We still — kids crying all night, and then you go during the day, up in the hill, you see all those bodies black, all frozen to death.
I: Have you been back to Korea after the war?
R: Oh, yeah.
R: Well, I worked for Hawaiian Tel, that had an international department — you know, for communications. I was an International Operation [unintelligible], so when the regulatory people went to see [Hyo-Seo Chum], I think. He was an ex-general but Head of [the] Ministry of Communications.
R: [I] went to his office to set up Seoul to Honolulu international telephone circuitry. This was 20 — no, 19. . . 70, 1970, first time I went back, but in support of U.S. military communication, because we provided the commercial circuits, from Hawai’i to Japan, Japan to Korea on [phone call].
R: The Japanese and the Koreans, they arranged for short three circuits, 20-point, from Kyushu, what’s the island. . . Tsushima, and onto Korea. The U.S. Military also used that. We provided the so-called command and control special equipment for the military headquarters in [Yansong] as well as Osan Air Base, which was the Air Force, [unintelligible].
R: The backup for Yansong was Daegu, [unintelligible] the command center, so we had it down there, too. Daegu was famous because our unit was stationed at Daegu for a while, Camp Walker.
I: Recently have you been back to Korea?
R: Oh yeah.
I: So now you see the country that you saw in 1950, and what do you [unintelligible] —
R: I was astounded by the progress they made, and more so for the Korean populace.
R: [They were] well-fed, well-dressed, well-mannered, and Seoul has become a beautiful city from what it was then, you know. [I] remember [Seoul] was broken-down, bombed out, shelled-out buildings. Not anymore, not anymore. That part I’m really happy for, what has happened to Korea and the country it has become — top-10 economic power in the world, in spite of being only the size of Indiana and [a] population of 40-50 million, compared to other countries.
R: I had to give a talk in the re-visit, and the President of Korea sat right across [from] me at the table, and I had to give a speech on behalf of the Americans.
R: I said that South Korea presented something like a textbook message on how to improve your country from a wartime thing, this and that. I was happy for what Korea has become — the spilled blood, this and that, but that’s nothing compared to what South Korea has [become] as a nation today. Unfortunately, it’s still split between North and South. I’d like to see them get together someday, but. . . .
I: As you mentioned very briefly in the beginning of this interview, you knew about the [scrape] between Japan and Korea. Just give me your opinions about what happened, and still, Korea, Japan, [and] China [are still] at odds with each other.
R: Well, you go back through the centuries. . . there was always a Korea — it couldn’t be wiped off the map.
R: I think it’s the peoples over the [unintelligible] on what they should be, and this is why, too, that in spite of the Mongols, the Chinese, the Japanese trying to control Korea, Korea still exists as a country today. You cannot wipe them off, and thank you for that. That’s what I’m happy about.
R: Unfortunately, there’s a lot of countries today in the world that should use South Korea as a textbook on how to build a nation from the ground up. A lot of countries in the world can use what they did by themselves, too. You know, when I read about a company like Samsung —
R: going all over the world to put up the highest building in the world, [and] the Koreans also building the largest ship at [Pohang], [laughs] on and on.
R: In fact, even [the] Samsung building, even Apple with their smartphones or whatever it is. On and on it goes. It’s unbelievable for a country that small [to be] doing what they’re doing.
I: What is your message, if you are asked, to young generations in the United States and Korea about your experience?
R: The message for them?
R: [Laughs] Growing up — study hard, do your best, and whatever you do, be good at it. Your mind gotta be such that you’re the thinking about peace all the time, [unintelligible], wars.
I: Thank you very much.
[End of Recorded Material]