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Swimming With the ROKS

Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats. ~Voltaire

We all have some activities we excel at; swimming has always been one of mine. My eyes were too crummy for baseball, I caught the ball like my glove had a hole in it. Too vertically challenged for basketball, fair to decent at football, I was too lazy to go out for it in high school, though I played on many sandlot teams and also on many teams at various airbases during my time in the Air Force. And although I liked to scrap a bit, also too lazy to go out for wrestling, like my brother who exceled at it. (I had several amateur boxing matches as well)

Lake Michigan; beautiful and cold But swimming filled my bill and I’ve always been a good at it. I grew up swimming in the turbulent, frigid waters of Lake Michigan, which no doubt accounts for some of my swimming acumen. In our old neighborhood, summers meant fishing and swimming in Lake Michigan and most of us honed our swimming skills during that time.

In Boy Scouts, I easily earned the “one mile swim” merit badge, and probably could have made two, if I had to. I could also hold my breath underwater for a long time, having perfected that in the bathtub at a young age. Swimming class in high school was always my favorite subject. (One of the few I didn’t complain about)

Later, while in the U.S. Air Force, I easily passed the elementary swim test required in basic training. While stationed at Grand Forks, Air Force base in North Dakota, we often swam at Turtle River State Park, while off duty. (During those few months of the year when North Dakota wasn’t covered in ice)

The ROKS protected much of our perimeter

But the real test of my swimming skills took place during my tour of duty in Vietnam. As allies of the U.S., South Korea provided some 55,000 troops during the course of the long war, losing about ten percent as casualties. Tough, disciplined troopers, the “ROKs” as they were called, took on many roles during their time in Vietnam. After Nixon’s Vietnamization program came into play, members of the 173rd Airborne who were protecting our perimeter at Phu Cat, were thrown into full combat units to replace other combat troops which had been sent home. As the Phu Cat Airbase came under heavier and heavier attack, along with the addition of Airmen Augmentees, (Auggie Doggies) the Republic of Korean Army Tiger Division assumed responsibility for protecting much of our base perimeter.

My cherished Tiger Division patch, given to me by my ROK brothers prior to my departing Vietnam

I first came to be associated with those stalwart warriors through the practice of Tae kwon Do. I eventually became a yellow belt at the sport, but never approached the level of skill that the ROK’s accomplished. (Few did) But I made some lasting friends among the Tigers, and corresponded with one for many years after the war. I still have some of his old letters.

As I came towards the end of my tour, I found myself responsible for the replenishment of some supplies for the small ROK compound on our Western perimeter. I actually bunked with them for most of my last month in-country.

The ROK compound where I would spend most of my last month in-country

During that time, I bonded with Kim Jun Ki, a ROK soldier, who kept trying to marry me off to his sister Jun Ja. She was pretty and sent me several letters. Flattered, but not interested in an arranged marriage I tactfully declined. I also bonded with the ROK Lieutenant, who was in charge of the small platoon size unit, Lieutenant Lee. As a “guest” of the compound the Lieutenant had me in his small bunker corner each morning for updates. He spoke fluent English and Vietnamese, in addition to Korean. A devout Christian, he liked to discuss theology, an area of which I was lukewarm. But I did admire the man and enjoyed our many conversations. The Lieutenant also insisted, that as a member of the compound, I go out on patrol with the unit. I did so several times, and fortunately came to no harm during the experience.

Kim Junki and I corresponded for many years after the war

From early on during my time at the compound, we’d fish in the small river which ran close by. We used concussion grenades, (hillbilly fishing) which worked very well, not damaging the meat too much and bringing the stunned fish up to the surface. The fish were a type of trout, and no doubt, the freshest, if not tastiest food I ate in the Nam.

But the fun really started when all the troops came down for a swim. The ROKs were a competitive bunch and raced each other for money. The first one to make it across the small river and back won. The ROK’s used military payment certificates (MPC) as we did, so we shared a common curren\at until I left Vietnam, and the ROKs never harbored any ill will for my winnings. The Lieutenant himself would come down once or twice a day to catch a swim. He would also insist on racing me, and since Mother Campolo raised no fools, Lieutenant Lee was the one Korean soldier, I could never beat. 😊

For more information on the ROKs and my time with them, see my earlier blog article The ROKs; Republic of Korea Soldiers in Vietnam.

An ROK Army Vietnam Veteran, now living in the U.S. who came to one of my book signings several years ago

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