William A. Kurth joined the United States Army in 1953, serving in the Korean War as a member of the Maintenance and Service Regiment. He offers a description of the Busan harbor, as well as the railroad yard, detailing his greatest challenges while serving overseas. He recounts that both American soldiers and Korean civilians were stealing supplies to eat or sell for a profit. He adds his recollections of several Korean cultural elements, performing his own rendition of “Arirang”, a Korean folk song. He explains that he feels for the Korean people as they paid the dearest during the war, ultimately buttressing his pride for having served.
The "Modern" Port of Busan
William Kurth offers a description of his experience in the port of Busan. He describes the modernization of the harbor by the Japanese and details the differing outlets available. He recounts a Japanese built railroad yard, describing some of the everyday operations taking place during the war.
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Thievery in Wartime
William Kurth describes stealing as one of the biggest challenges he faced while serving. He recounts both American soldiers and Korean civilians stealing supplies to either eat or sell for a profit. He recounts building relationships with several Koreans throughout his service.
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The Songs and Culture of Korea
William Kurth offers his experiences with the deeply saturated Korean culture. He describes physical appearances of the Korean people, the Korean alphabet, and a folk song. He performs his own rendition and shortened version of the Korean folk song, "Arirang."
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0 BKurth- My name is William A. Kurth. That’s an alias; my birth name was Alfred Marks.
Interviewer: Alfred Marks? So that’s your birth name?
BK: Birth name, yeah
Interviewer: So whenwere you born?
BK: September 12, 1925
Interviewer: September 12, 1925. You share the same birthday as mine, September, Wow very nice. I think we love September, right?
BK:Destiny is a strange thing.
Interviewer: Yeah, so where were you born?
BK: I was born on the very eastern border of Marathon County.
BK: Yes that’s the centralcounty in the state; it’s also the biggest.
Interviewer: In Wisconsin?
BK:Yes and it’s in the township of Nori, and when I was three, my birth mother passedaway and I was placed in custody for a while with my grandmother,
and she passed away a year later, and then I was placed in custody of one of my maternal uncle’s andthat didn’t work out too good. I evidently burned his store down playing around with matches.
His wife was an educated woman andshe engineered the deal that her brother in law and sister in law would have me and they’d adopt me. Oh then I had this memory
of this big rigamarole they had at this gatheringwith of a lot of old ladies and everything they paid attention over me and I was re-baptized and renamed and it was never recorded in the courthouse, so I had a birth certificate that is this free-floating for many, many years.
Interviewer: Butyou were born in 1925 and you went through Great Depression. Must be very difficult right?
BK: No, no, we were the peasant type
and I was. My grandparentscame over from Europe and so they were used to the very, very lowest of societyand doing with just about nothing andmaking things out of nothing.
BK: God, they got here and of course my birth mother would have lived
if she hadpenicillin, but she died in the morning.
Then I was three and of course grandma had me for a year and then she died. Ican remember I crawled in the coffin with
her, trying to wake her up!
BK: You know then they hadwakes right in the homes and peoplewould come and gather right in the hometo call on them.
Interviewer: So what school did you graduate from high school?
BK: I didn’t go to high school. I went through grade schooland the teacher, when I took my exams and I passed, myteacher said, “I’m surprised you passed” [Laughter]
Of course we didn’t like one another much.
Interviewer: So what happened?
BK: So I was at my stepdad’s, so by the way I haveto always say that he was the mostwonderful man, and he had nothing againstmy birth dad, but the women were a different story.
And so I was taken away from my birth dad, and I had two full brothers; onewas two years older and one was four yearsolder than me. And they separated me from them, which was a very dirty deal and he was trying to do the very best for us.
Hehad a widow he was going to marry totake care of us, not to be a fickleperson but he meant the very best for us,but that’s not the way everybody talkedabout him. By the way he was half Native-American and I suspect that he hadJewish blood.
Interviewer: So when did you join the military?
BK: Well, Iwas pressured to stay out by all therelatives very strong, and they put me on a draft dodging job when I was 18 andthen I had a year away from thefamily and working for that wonderfulboss and I got to thinking.
Well I had a very forceful scheming stepmother and she had raised me to be a mule; that’sall and when I got away from her and I started to think on my own and I wasthinking “my God all of my dear schoolmates
and close friends are in the military and some died and here I am. so I told the boss I said in the fall when my work is done I’m going to turn up. I left the job and then he dropped me off back at family home
and they said “what are you doing back here?” I said, “I quit I’m gonna go and sign up now”. So I went and signed up.
Interviewer: And when was it?
BK: 1940 in December, 44
Interviewer: In 44 and it was army?
BK: No, I got there and the doctor said that I had very perfect eyes and ears
and Irecommend that you go in Marine Corps
Okay, so Isaid all right I tried the Marine Corps and the sergeant that I was talking to, he saidwe have a shortage
and according to yourdoctor’s exam you have excellent eyesand ears and you’ve got good fingers so all you need to do is pull a trigger so we will take you in. I’ll tell you I, made it but it was not easy mentally. Physically it was easy I was very used to heavy active work
so boot campphysically wasn’t what mentally I really had a big deal to change. I talked slow andI thought slowand but I made it. I upgraded myself. I wanted I had never used a rifle or anything. That family I raised with,
itwas at least a dozen kids at home and then sometimes cousins they’d take in homelesspeople that’s the kind of wonderful manraised me.
BK: if someone needed help he never refused so and I, uh, I tried very hard to do real good at the rifle and I did.
I made a very good score so …
Interviewer: Have youbeen to Korea?
BK: Well when I was in Korea, I was in the army. About ten years after I hadbeen out of the Marines I joined the army
Interviewer: So whenwere you in Korea?
BK: Way down in the Division Headquartersdown at Pusan in quartermasters.
Interviewer: Whenwere you?
BK: 50 … it was two years after the war started inKorea.
Interviewer: so 1953?
BK: yeah I was there a yearand I worked in a quartermaster
taking care of the engines and compressors forcold storage and now it once in a whileto build and direct those always truckscoming and going there was an egg storage warehouse.
Interviewer: But before 53, where were you?
BK: Oh, I got out of the Second World Warand that wonderful men that raised me. He… I come home and he was crying and hesaid, “Boy, what do I do? My daughter older daughter’s” he said “running wild breaking my heart.”
He said, “then the twins won’t lift a finger for me.” He had a settwin boys just two years younger than me, so I said to him I’ll give you a lift, so I helped him get his… he had livestock and machinery and everythingat the farm but he didn’t own his ownfarm, and I helped him get a little farm, and I stayed with him for a couple years.
Interviewer: And then you rejoined the army?
BK: No. Then I went to the city and I got a city job. I worked first in a big steel warehouse, and then I worked with Ford MotorCompany a while. They had an assembly plantthere in St. Paul.
Interviewer: So then you joined thearmy again and then went to Korea right?
BK: yeah, yeah
Interviewer: And that was 1953?
BK: Yeah, it was also non-combat in the quartermaster maintenance why..
Interviewer: How was Pusan? Yousaw…
BK: Pusan was… the Japanese had modernized it into a very fine Harbor;
it’s one of the finestharbors on the face of the earth.
Interviewer: You mean Pusan?
BK: Yes ha, that and San Francisco are two of the finest harbors inthe world and the Japanese had modernized it. And they had one outlet for the big ships,
then they had a side outlet for civilians and theirlittle boats, off to the side away from the main traffic and the main warehouses and things. Then the Japanese had built two lines of railroads the length of Korea, so they had big railroadyard there and of course the DMZ,
which was the stupidest thing …that political deal that the UN was… the Koreanflag and United States flag flew side-by-side, and the UN flag flew one flag higher.
Interviewer: You didn’t like it?
BK: I didn’t like it at all, and whenever new shipment of troops would come in and a shipmentwould go out. There was this old, fickle, muscley…uh, uh I think she was German would supervise and count all the noses
going in and out and how many riflescame in and how many rifles when out.
Interviewer: So, when did you leave Korea?
BK: I was there a little over a year
BK: I went… finish my time
and… I was discharged.
Interviewer: what was your mission: what was your unit and mission specialty?
BK: I was in 8th Army headquarters, maintenance and service regiment.
BK: And so I was working in the cold storage.
BK: Refrigeration in a very large warehouse for fresh eggs. They’d fill those rooms up andthen on one side was a railroad track.
They’d load the railroad cars full and send them up to the troops up north … 30,000 cases a month we handled.
Interviewer: mm-hmm what was your rank?
BK: I was corporal there. I – I never got more than that. I never cared for rank.
Interviewer: But you, you were you entered the Marine in 1944?
BK: well, this was the army that was in Korea
Interviewer: Yeah, right but you enter the Marine in 1944 and there was no promotion from there?
BK: I also was discharged, two strikes. I didn’t care to climb.
In fact, I didn’t enjoy their corporal barracks. I like the PFC. It’s much friendlier…
Interviewer: What was the most difficult thing in your service in Korea, in Pusan?
BK: The most difficult I’d say is… there was a lot of stealing going on.
BK: oh yeah
Interviewer: So the Korean people stole a lot?
BK: The GI ‘s also. I know, because if they steal certain things they could sell it to the Koreans, and they’d have some extra pocket money they could play with. You ought to know, all GI’s aren’t exactly angels.
Interviewer: So whathappened after they’re all stealing? Did they get caught?
BK: Oh, well after they catchyou, well then you went to stockade andspent time in jail and you lost rank and you had a bad mark on you.
When I left there I had two trainees under me, two Korean soldiers when I got there they took me aside,that private and they shook my hand, and they said, “Thank You Corporal, Thank You Corporal Thank You Corporal.” I treated them very fairly and taught them
the work thatthey were put in by the Korean army andthey were successful and they were verythankful.
Interviewer: So you have a lot of chance towork with the Korean soldiers?
BK: …With twotrainees and then there were workersthat handle the cargo, common workers,
I: m hm
and they were the ones that you had to watch out for because they would break open the egg cases and take eggs,and some would suck them raw too. But,we had Mr. Park was a wonderful middle-aged man that we hired and he had lost his wife and children and he married a widow
that had children. He was a very honorable man and they always looked like he had been crying. Mr. Park was wonderful.. Mr. Yu, Mr. Yu was; he was something else: a thief and everything else and a pimp and everything else.
Interviewer: Huh, so you experience so much different spectrum of humans and the relationships.
Interviewer: Does that bother you? Do you have the PTSD?
Bk: I have some very warm memories. I also you know had been in North China in the Marines
when I was in the Marines and there also I left friends behind me. I can still remember my working partners, civilians. I got on the truck to go to the ship, and they was waving and calling me friend. I left friend, friends behind. I liked the workers because I was a
worker and a poor boy I was never in the high society and I felt at home with…
Interviewer: Looking back all those years that you serve in the Marine Corps and Army and especially during the Korean War, what do you think about that? How do you put that into perspective?
BK: Well, I got over there
you know after the main combat had been and they were in a stalemate. I had a kid brother was over there in the Marines and he was on that terrible slaughter De Baak Sola and that hill that the Chinese took away, and he was
one of about a dozen men came down the rest of the division was all dead.
I: uh mm. So why do you think it is Forgotten War, the Korean War has been known as the Forgotten War?
BK: Well it was a political one,
not like in the Second World War. I was over just after Iwo Jima that was put in as a replacement and one of the divisions, after taking the island. We lost two-thirds casualties, taking Iwo, and I commented about that
flag raising, and they just turned their nose up towards survivors. They said that’s for the newspapers
Interviewer: Hmm. Do you know the Korean economy now Korean modern Korea what’s going on in Korea right now in terms of economy and so on?
BK: They don’t do much talking now except the
little Mongolian up there. He’s not a Korean. He don’t look Korean at all, does he? He looks like a Mongolian.
Interviewer: Yeah, I mean Koreans belong to Mongolian ethnic group.
BK: oh no! When I was over there you know and I said. “How come you have light eyes?” Almost all the people had light eyes and not black eyes like most all Chinese and the Japanese had,
and I said, “You must be mixed with Russian.” They said, “ We are Korean! We have light eyes like almost all Koreans had light eyes.” There was a fewthat had Japanese and Chinese blood in them that had the black eyes with most of the Koreans were handsome by the way, very beautiful women, and their like
and their separate ethnic group and they have a musical score like we do, and the beautiful singers, and they have alphabet that it’s almost same numbers ours also they don’t have a Chinese script like the Chinese have at all.
Interviewer: You know a lot about Korean culture.
BK: Oh, I used to sit and talk with them if you would show interest and show that you didn’t degrade them we would sit and we’d sing – we’d sing together too- I love to sing. I heard some of the most beautiful singing I ever heard. These Korean women.
Interviewer: What is it? Aegukka?
BK: Well, that’s their, I think like their national anthem. (Sings part of the song) Yeah I heard it so many times.
Interviewer: oh you sing very, very good.
BK: oh I’d sit and sing with them, you sit and sing with
those people, you know. They took you as a brother, and I was with the common workers. I wasn’t with the upper-class, just the common workers that’s my, my part of society, you know, that’s what I was as a boy and as I grew up.
Interviewer: Do you want to go back to Korea?
BK: Well, I would have liked that when Paul was alive. It would have been nice if I could have him and his close friend if they could have taken a plane trip there and seen it and I never thought about. I had lots of money then when I was single. I could have arranged for him and his close friend; he had a very close man friend,
they were related distant, but they grew up as friends, boys, you know from little on. It would have been nice to think of them if they went and seeing that. That would have really been nice.
Interviewer: Korean government invites Korean War veterans back to Korea, and they cover most of the expenses. Do you know that?
BK: No, I didn’t know that.
Interviewer: Do you want to go?
BK: First I’ve got to get rid of this terrible skin trouble, and I have to leave here in order to do it. I can’t cure myself here.
BK: By the way, I did not ask to be here. I had other relatives put me here. See, in that family that I was raised with they were cousins, first cousins,
not brothers but I was raised as a brother.
BK: But some of them that knew the older ones that know that I was not a brother you know some of them resented me. They did not take kindly to me.
Interviewer: hmm. So, your life has a lot of ups and downs, and you have very unhappy memories too.
BK: yes, I started
out my first three years just have been just like heaven with my birth mother and grandmother close by and then when she died then everything changed. Then my grandmother took me over and of course she was old so she died the next year, so I had a couple of dark periods in my life early on.
And then of course my stepmother, who was actually blood sister to my mother, she treated me very unequal, almost always, so she was the baby of the family. I think she never did get over being the baby in certain ways,
and she used to try to boss her or she did boss Pa. I call them Ma and Pa you know, and, uh, she would yell at him and everything “you need to back out the door; you go bye-bye” and shut the door at me. (Laughs)
Interviewer: okay what is the legacy of the Korean War to you?
BK: Well, it was just like in any war. It’s hell first of all, and the civilians are the ones that paid the dearest and almost all wars anyway, but specially Korea;
the civilians suffered terribly.
BK: Back and forth those armies went through the country.
Interviewer: Do you think we can be reunified with North Korea?
BK: Oh, it should have been never separated that, that was what gave
the, you see,… the Russians were looking for every little thing they could to make the United States weaker or to look bad, and they’re very good at that. The Russians are that type of personality, so they really triggered that, not us
and of course, that stupid partitioning that the UN did was… they did that in numbers of different countries, you know.
Interviewer: It was U.S. not U.N. It was U.S. that partitioned…
BK: No it was UN that was the big…
Interviewer: No, no, no, no. U.S was the partitioning.
BK: We, we did the arms race stuff, but the UN
had a bunch of schemers in it. They did it in Europe for Germany too, you know.
Interviewer: So let me ask this question; what is Korea to you personally?
BK: They’re a very great people. They’re very strong for their size. They had that traditional
backpack they called it a frind and a strong Korean champion he is called a Chimpo.
BK: He could carry 200 pounds 20 miles. Yeah, they were, for their size, they were some of the strongest people I ever saw.
Interviewer: Mm. And what else? What is Korea to you personally?
BK: Oh it’s a great nation. I think it’s a great …it’s special people. It’s not Chinese; It’s not Japanese. At all. They’re a separate nationality and I read up on them as far as I could. I didn’t have much to read on, but they, uh,
in ancient days related to the Turks.
Interviewer: Any other story you want to leave to this interview?
BK: Well, I can tell you one thing I saw. One time, I was on guard, and these refugees
came down and were not getting help from anybody the way they should have. And this young mother had made this like an arch with both ends open, and she might have been a single mother, I don’t know, but I was about 20 feet away,
and she came out of that little hovel, the little hut, screaming, holding her dead baby. Oh and you know, it didn’t take a half a minute and there’s about 12 older women come around and comforted her. But ,uh,
there was summertime boils there that, even if you had them before, you’d get them again. I had them. The GI’s got them just like the Koreans and mine were not that painful or anything, but you know, a boil is full of pus,
and it smells and everything. So that there’s one thing that I don’t know how many, most likely China had it to because it was much more filthy than Korea.
Interviewer: Thank you very much.