Excavating the Thousand-Yard Stare

When I was eight, the boys on the school playground started talking about how big and strong their Dads were.

“My Dad killed 20 people in the war!” one said.

“My Dad killed 30!” another piped up.

It was a kind of contest, and it went on for days.   I wanted to ask my own Dad but I didn’t know how to ask it.  I knew that killing was supposed to be a bad thing, except when you killed people in war, when it was good.  It was confusing.  I knew my father had been in the Korean War, whatever that was.  I knew he must have killed the enemy.  It wasn’t wrong, because they weren’t people, after all, they were the enemy, they were gooks.

So one day I walked into the master bedroom and just asked him outright.

“Dad, how many people did you kill in the war?”

What I remember is a blank stare.  I remember him giving me a look that told me he didn’t know what to answer. He never did answer, and immediately, I knew it was a subject that went beyond words.

Dad passed away in 1989 at the tender age of 59.    Twenty-one years later, I picked up a discount book in a Borders Bookstore called The Coldest Winter.  I thought it was about time that I learned about this war that my father had been in.  At the time, I was nearly three times the age he was when he served in Korea, and nearly the age he was when he died.  I began to read it at bedtime.  That’s when I realized why he’d been silent.  From the very first chapter, I began to realize that The Korean War was one of the bloodiest and most brutal wars of the 20th century, far bloodier than Iraq or Afghanistan.

ImageThat book led to other books (this, this, this, this, this, and this).  In the Chosin Reservoir campaign, in which Dad participated in November and December, 1950, the Chinese threw wave after wave of soldiers at the marines.  The marines mowed them down with machine guns, but still they kept coming.  In two weeks of battle, they killed approximately 60,000 Chinese soldiers, which averages out to approximately 4,000 per day.  During the same period, the Chinese killed 7,000 Americans, which averages out to approximately 500 per day.

What had he gone through.  One soldier recalled the all-pervasive stench of smoldering fires, rotting corpses, and human excrement.   Another soldier told of getting shot beneath the eye, knocking the eyeball out of its socket, then having to find the strength within himself to pop the eye back where it belonged, then continue fighting.   Another passed a fellow soldier in agony by the roadside, on fire from burning phosphorus, screaming for someone to shoot him.   Another told of the fear that rose up within him during night battles, how the Chinese corpses began coming to life like boogeymen—wriggling, rolling over, crawling, sitting up, struggling to their feet, “turning into nightmare monsters.”


Another told of the Chinese throwing so many grenades that they looked like flocks of blackbirds.  Some grenades exploded and killed marines.  On occasion, a soldier was able to quickly sidearm the grenade out of his foxhole.  At other times, a soldier would jump on the grenade to protect his buddies and be killed himself, or he would attempt to sidearm the grenade away and it would blow off his arm or face.   Another soldier told of stacking up Chinese corpses like cordwood.

Another told of sitting on a tree stump to look at a photograph of his family by the light of a burning truck, and only later realizing that he was sitting on a frozen Chinese soldier covered with ice and snow.   Another told of hiding from enemy soldiers by burrowing himself into a pile of dismembered dead American GIs and acting dead.   Another told of the approach of dawn, when the morning revealed all the Chinese they had killed during the night, and how there were so many that they actually changed the contour of the terrain.

The soldiers on both sides fought all through the night and up until dawn.  Instead of sleeping, they then worked most of the day—digging in, calling in for supplies and air cover, leaving little time for sleep.  At night, it would start all over again. To make matters worse, it was an especially severe November in North Korea, and temperatures plummeted to as low as 40 below for days on end.     They would take off their boots, hang up their sweaty socks, and the socks would promptly freeze.  Nearly every American soldier sustained some degree of frostbite, some losing their feet altogether.  Soldiers would work till they dropped, catch a few winks, and freeze to death in their sleep.   There were lots of friendly fire casualties.

When I attended the Frozen Chosin memorial dedication in September, 2010, the veterans all seemed shell-shocked and impaired.  You would start talking to them, and then they would reach a point in the conversation and, inexplicably, stand up and walk away.  They couldn’t function.  Everybody was decimated inside.  And the years hadn’t healed them at all.

As a child, when I asked Dad about killing people in the war, he gave me what marines call “the thousand-yard stare.”  How can you tell a child about what it’s like to kill another person?  How can you tell about the anguish that it creates within you?  How can you tell him how horrible it is?    And what about the land mine that is emotion?  Is it right to talk about the act of killing with no emotion, and thus teach the child that killing is a legitimate, everyday occurrence?  And if you show emotion, how can you stop it when it starts to flow like the Yalu River?

David Groves around 1962 age 7 smaller

“Dad, how many people did you kill in the war?”

It was a question he couldn’t answer.  It was an answer I found only decades later, when I started reading and reading and reading, and my heart began to ache.

For other posts about the Korean War, click here:

18 thoughts on “Excavating the Thousand-Yard Stare

  1. My father was in the Navy in WWII and was called up for some sort of stateside service during Korea. He never talked to us about his years in the service. He died young also at age 57. Too early for me to even ask specific questions. When I learned about the realities of war, I understood why he never talked about it. My brother went to Vietnam and returned a different person. Now today, we are focused on the chemical warfare in Syria. Why on Earth is it OK to slaughter with guns and grenades and cannons but somehow worse to use gas? How absolutely absurd!

    I liked your post but it makes me feel sad.

  2. For whatever reason(s), perhaps because it was a “U.N. action”, Korea is somewhat “forgotten “by much of the American public, unlike the two wars on either side of it (WW2 and Viet Nam). My father was in WW2 (non-combat logistics role in Army Air Corps in the Pacific) but missed Korea for some reason.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this, I feel a bit of a kindred spirit with you on this one – I recently also blogged on Korean War – (“Writing On Conflict: I’m Sorry for What You Saw in Korea” at writetothefull.wordpress.com. You may have seen it and started following, thanks for following by the way. I find this blog entry of yours riveting – you have much more than I have been able to glean so far. From my limited experience, vets of the Korean War are unique in their reaction, more so than vets of other wars, but that is just my opinion. I find the subject totally riveting and disturbing and sad and enthralling all at the same time. I will read this again and again. I think it is valuable for people to convey the emotion involved here. Thanks again.

  4. You spoke so many of my thoughts about my dad even though he was from an earlier generation. He grew up during the Great Depression, but never wanted to speak of it. He would have broken his back to keep us kids well provided for, and that spoke of the painful childhood memories more then those never spoken words. At 17 he entered WWII, and flew thirty missions over occupied territory in planes call “flying coffins”. He wouldn’t talk about that either when I was in high school. (He didn’t start a family until his 30’s.) But as the 40th anniversary approached he slowly began to talk about the killing, the school house that was bombed (by accident?), the frost bite from sitting at the turret window, shitting in his pants from fear. My dad passed away at 87 years. I haven’t written about his experiences yet, but your piece has motivated me to start. Thanks for sharing these thoughts and experiences. April Van Tassell

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