It Was All About The Jeep

by Sandy Colton

It was really all about the jeep. That was what made it possible for me as a Stars and Stripes photogapher able to get around on the battlefields of Korea.

When the Korean War broke out in June of 1950, the Pacific Stars and Stripes had become an all service paper with men and women from the Navy, Marines, and Air Force, as well as the Army now on staff.

I had spent months in Korea traveling around the country on my thumb. Stars and Stripes had no vehicle. Then my friends at my old unit, the 18th Fighter Bomber Wing based in Chinhae. heard that I was wandering around the country without a ride. in Korea. Next door to the 18th, in Mason, was a Marine unit with a huge scrap yard. Somehow the guys at the club talked the Marines out of a scrapped jeep that sort of ran, and presented it to me during one of my visits there, along with a few bottles of scotch for repairs. The jeep had no hood or windshield, only one seat for the driver, the engine leaked water that would hit the fan and blow back onto the driver. There were no headlights and no spare tire. I thanked my benefactors and drove the wreck into Pusan where I bought a set of headlights on the black market and hooked them up. I was now ready for the next big jump, a drive to Seoul. One of the Stripes staffers in the Pusan bureau was going to join me but chickened out at the last minute so I took off alone.

A few miles out of Pusan I came upon a farmer pulling along a small doe with a rope around its neck. I stopped and bargained and bought the doe for three packs of cigarettes. I then drove merrily on with the doe sitting in my lap, front hooves on the steering wheel and me wearing rubber sandals, a bathing suit and a duck billed yachting cap with a flying fish on the front. We were quite a sight. I had to stop at almost every village to get more water for the radiator and the children would all gather around to pet the deer.

Not far beyond Taeju I came upon a bunch of Korean Army men at a cross road, looking over a bombed out bridge over a small stream. According to my map the next town I should come to was Chungju. In my amateur Japanese I asked the group if this was the right way to Chungju. They pointed to the downed bridge so I spun the jeep around and rolled down the bank to ford the stream while they kept shouting at me. Not understanding Korean I just drove on. It seemed like a long drive when I finally came to a village and pulled in to get water for the radiator. A bunch of children swarmed around me to pet the deer and an old man showed up. I asked him for water and he got some for me. I then asked if this road led to Chungju and he said yes. I thought it strange that this was the only adult I saw but pulled away and headed on down the road.

It was getting dark and I was beginning to worry. Chungju didn't appear to be that far on the map I had. Finally I pulled into a small town with a Korean army type directing traffic. I asked him if this was Chungju and he said yes. He then got on a radio and called someone, then told me to wait. A short time later an American army major showed up and asked where I was going and where had I come from. When I told him he asked me to follow him. We drove a short way to a compound. On the way in he pointed to a number of bullet holes around the place. "We've been under attack," he said. Inside he asked me again to show him on his map where I had come from. It seems that I was indeed in a town by the name of Chongju, pronounced like young. The place I thought I was going to Chungju, the u is pronounced like you or Choongju. What was even more amazing, the major said, "is that you've just driven through guerrilla headquarters in South Korea that two battalions of ROK Army have not been able to conquer over the past month!" I'm going to have to learn to pronounce Korean names better, I thought. The deer and that wreck of a jeep must have saved my life. The next day I drove on to Seoul via a different route up the west coast the major provided.

Just outside of the Seoul city limits I was pulled over by some Canadian MP's. "Where's your registration?" they asked. I explained that I didn't have one and even if I did where would the numbers go since I had no hood. I then told them the story about the jeep and said that I was going to take it up to Uijongbu, a big Army repair depot, to get it fixed up. I then told them that there were many similar jeeps at the foreign correspondents hotel across from the capitol building. "You mean to say the American Army condones this sort of thing?" they asked. When I replied yes they said "Oh, very well. Carry on." and saluted. Greatly relieved I hurried on to the correspondent's billet, picking up that Pusan Stripes passenger who had flown up and was hitch hiking into town. The next day I drove to Uijongbu where, for four bottles of scotch, my battered jeep was fixed up like new, complete with "war correspondent" painted under the windshield. I was in business.

It wasn't long after that that two newcomers arrived at the correspondent's billet, George Sweers a young AP photographer, and Sam Summerlin, an AP correspondent. They asked if I'd give them a ride up front and I agreed. Close to the Imjin river and the front lines we came to a dirt road with fresh tracks but signs on both sides reading "Road Not Cleared for Mines." George urged me to drive on while Sam screamed "No." I drove on and came to a stop at a sharp bend in the road that ran along the Imjin. The road was blocked by a tank parked in the middle of it, it's crewmen leaning against a hill with the tank between them and the river.

"Better get your ass out of there," one called.

"Why?" we asked.

"They're firing at us over there," they replied.

Both Sam and George quickly joined the tankers while I backed the jeep out of sight. That day Sam got his first war story and George his first war picture. About fifty feet further along the road another tank had hit a mine and all aboard it were killed.

Eventually Sam and George managed to get a jeep of their own. The usual procedure was to leave the correspondents billets equipped with a spare distributor rotor and a set of chain cutters. Most people took the rotor out of their distributor and chained down the steering wheel to keep their jeeps from being stolen. When a likely jeep was spotted by the cruising correspondents, one would leap out and cut the chain on the steering wheel while the other lifted the hood and replaced the missing rotor. They then quickly drove the jeep back to the correspondents billet where other friends were waiting with GI OD paint to quickly paint out all identifying numbers and put "War Correspondent" under the windshield.

Sandy Colton covered the Korean War for Stars and Stripes. He later joined the Associated Press and eventually became Director of Photography. He now lives In his log cabin north of Watertown, NY.