Angels in the Rice Paddies of South Korea

It was the early summer of 1994; I was twenty years old and stuck on a secluded mountaintop in South Korea. As a member of the US Army’s Second Infantry Division, this mountain (Hill 754) had been my home away from home for the better part of the year. During my tour there, the North Korea leader, Kim Il-sung, had died and the North was suffering from a devastating famine.

Hill 754, South Korea – My home away from home.

The hill I was stationed on was about a thirty minute drive from the main army installation, Camp Casey. I was one of ten soldiers assigned to the hill to operate and maintain a radio retransmit site for the 2nd Infantry Batallion. When we weren’t running shift, things up on the mountain could get pretty boring. On one particularly beautiful morning, my comrades and I decided to fill our canteens and go on a hike down into a relatively unexplored portion of valley about five miles to our north. After about an hour into our hike, everyone but me and one other companion had turned back.

march

Big John on far right looking goofy as usual.

The two of us continued trudging along aimlessly for another hour or so before realizing that both our canteens were empty. To make matters worse, it was becoming brutally warm and the monotonous hilly terrain all began looking exactly the same. While hiking down the wooded slopes we had been so engaged in conversation that we neglected to plot a return course. It soon became apparent to us both that we were standing in the middle of nowhere and maybe even a slight bit lost.

2id

Known as the Indianhead , this is the patch of the 2nd Infantry Division, United States Army.

We didn’t spend much time staying worrying; for as luck would have it, we soon stumbled out of the wood line into a quaint farming village. When I say quaint, this place was tiny even for South Korea standards. The entire place was nothing more than some rice paddies, a few huts, and some hungry oxen tied to hitching posts. On the opposite side of the path on which we stood, there was a bubbling stream concealed behind a line of trees.  We started for the stream and soon heard the sounds of singing and laughter coming from within. We cleared the trees and looked down into the flowing waters to see several round, middle-aged women washing their clothes on the rocks below.

One of the women climbed the embankment wearing a beautiful smile. She greeted us with broken English and inquired as to our presence there. We explained that we lived on the mountain with the antennas and that we came down for exercise only to find ourselves thirsty and lost. She motioned for us to follow her and her friends who had just finished wash and now would be preparing to eat.

A feast was prepared for us in the little farming village.

It wasn’t long before I found myself pulling off my muddy combat boots and seated Indian-style on the floor of a church. The church was as quaint as the rest of the structures in the village. It was a single-storied white building with a cross hoisted just above the door. The church’s interior had no pews, no stage, and no altar that I can recall. It simply contained a fairly nice sized room with a wooden floor bare of furnishings, and a small kitchen attached to its side. The women left us seated in suspense on the floor as they disappeared quickly into the kitchen . They were gone no more than twenty minutes when they reemerged carrying dishes upon dishes of wonderful foods. They had tuna, squid, Kimchi, noodles, Gaegogi (dog), rice, and even ice-cold spring water. It was a feast that I will never forget. After our wonderful dinner, our gracious hosts even presented us with two ornate hand-decorated calendars, beautifully inscribed on rolled parchment paper. They refilled our canteens, pointed us in the right direction and bid us God-speed.

It took me many years before fully realizing the blessing bestowed upon me that fateful day. It took we many years to realize the extent in which those women sacrificed; there must’ve been more than a weeks worth of food they parted with to feed two foreigners who just happened to cross their path.

angel

To the women washing clothes in that mountain stream, wherever you might be now;
here still on this earth or reaping your rewards above;
I want to thank you for showing me God’s love and generosity.
I want to thank you for teaching me that angels can be found anywhere; even in the muddiest of rice paddies in South Korea.

rice paddy
A Rice Farmer trudges through the paddies in South Korea

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Happy travels,

Big John


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5 thoughts on “Angels in the Rice Paddies of South Korea

  1. Yes big John that brings back some memories. You see I to was once on hill 754 back on 1968. I was the cook then for ten radio operator’s and six infantry guards. Was a little different then during the Vietnam era but much the same. Security was tight we could not ever leave the hill. But one thing that always stood out in my memories was the nice people there.

  2. Jan. 10, 2020
    I’ve read many stories about GI’s who were stationed in South Korea, but this is the most heart felt one I’ve had the pleasure.
    I was stationed in Korea in 1958-1962, at Osan Air Base and at the time Korea was still recovering from the War. I saw so much poverty and yet everyone was willing to share what they had.
    I think they are among the most compassionate people on earth. It was an adventure I will never forget.
    My refrigerator is never without a jar of Kimchi and packages of Korean fresh noodles.
    My first time off base I had Kimchi and loved the taste although I had been warned against eating the rotten stuff. I thought it was delicious. I still do even after eating it for sixty two years.

  3. I was stuck on Casey 39er twice during my tour in 2000-2001, once in December of 2000 and once again in April of 2001. As a member of 702nd MSB, and a 31U, I got assigned to man the installation for my Battalion. It was very boring when off radio watch, and pretty boring while ON radio watch. We had a few board games (that no one played), an old TV and VCR, and a selection of movies that I must have watched hundreds of times. I mostly just stayed in my tiny little room and read books, or went out exploring. Like you, a buddy and I struck out on a hike one day, but instead of going north, we dropped off the helipad to the southeast and kept going. Pretty soon we crested a ridge and saw the expansive settlement to the east of Hill 754. It was fun.

    I’m surprised there isn’t more information on Casey 39er online, it was an interesting place and time. The winter I was there, it snowed a massive amount and we were snowed in. They couldn’t get supplies up to us via land vehicles, so they had to airlift MREs and a water buffalo up to use by Blackhawk. I’ve got loads of pictures of that, and of the general installation from my time there.

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