Barbed Wire City
It was a Quonset hut, galvanized steel bent into a huge, corrugated half-round, with puke-green walls and unfinished plywood floors, double-decked bunks, a latrine. An ordinary US Army barracks — until I peered through the high windows and saw the wire.
Great coils of razor wire shimmered in the floodlights, a Titan's Slinky carelessly spilling around my hut and throughout The Army Support Command's Stockade near Inchon — a mess hall, offices, supply and arms rooms, chapel, guard and prisoner barracks, all connected by narrow concrete walkways. Razor-wire fences lined every building and every walk, surrounding prisoners, guards, cooks, clerks, drivers. Ten feet high, twenty deep, another barrier surrounded the whole facility, steel beams supporting layer upon layer of thumb-wide razors spaced inches apart, wire designed to hook flesh and tear it. No man could hope to go through that and live.
Not that I entertained ideas of escape. I would face this, I had decided when I was arrested, use the system, prove my innocence. I couldn't blame the Army for assuming that I was involved. The package was addressed to my wife but I signed for it, put it in my room. And had no idea what it held. After my arrest, a Korean Customs agent, the one who beat me, hinted that it was gems. In my room — the CID would search it — were letters from Maideen in Hong Kong, and jewelry samples, proof that I knew the man who sent the package. That my relationship with him was innocent would be harder to show but I would have my day in court.
The system would work. I would get my life back. I was certain.
But being locked up without trial or hearing — that bothered me. No charges had been brought. I was confined on the spoken words of a three-star general. I couldn't think why, unless someone had convinced him that I was an escape threat — a blonde, blue-eyed, fair-skinned American in a nation of dark-skinned, dark-eyed, dark-haired people, a country surrounded by oceans on three sides and most of the North Korean Army on the fourth — or that I was dangerous.
The barracks held 140. But Army Regulations bar officers from being incarcerated with enlisted men; mine was the lone bunk.
I had no fellow prisoners but I was not alone. The guard was changed every two hours. Invariably over six feet tall, boots spit-shined to dark mirrors, starched fatigues with knife-edged creases, his gleaming helmet liner bore the crest of an MP regiment. White or Hispanic, rarely out of his teens, he stood at parade rest three paces distant, watching me. When I used the latrine, he looked on as I relieved myself. He observed my daily shower. If I turned my back to dry myself or dress, he moved until he could see my flaccid penis, the shame of my pale spare tire. I was allowed an hour daily for exercise and as I jogged slow dirt laps of the narrow yard, the guard stared from the doorway. When I stretched, did my pushups and sit-ups, he saw. At night he observed my tossing and turning, listened to my nocturnal somatic noises. Watched, unknowing, as I dreamt of my wife’s satin skin, of the exquisite fullness of her breasts with their dark aureoles, of the sweet fire between her thighs, of beating her face bloody.
How could she have done this to me?
After all that I done for her and for her family — what could she have been thinking? And where was she? Safe? In jail? What about our baby?
Guard at my heels, half an hour before scheduled meal times I walked to the mess hall, eating rapidly to finish before other prisoners arrived. These men awaited trial on offenses from desertion to murder and rape, or served short sentences for minor infractions like AWOL, assault or failure to obey orders; it would not do to have them share space with an officer awaiting charges. I ate in silence from a plastic tray; the food neither very good nor very bad, merely standard rations, prepared in the usual inelegant ways. When I commanded a company, I took pride in doing far better.
But I no longer commanded anything.
The guard watched me eat.
The guard spoke only when absolutely necessary. If I observed that it looked like rain, he did not reply. If I asked the time — my watch, along with other valuables, was taken for “safekeeping” — he remained silent but might display his wristwatch. When I asked to speak to the commanding officer, a guard might nod or make no response.
After a few days, a master sergeant came and told me to stop asking guards for the C.O. My request was forwarded through channels, he said; the C.O. would see me when he was ready.
I took this opportunity to ask for writing materials. The next day I got a pad, a pencil, and an envelope. "One letter a day to your immediate family, don't seal the envelope, we'll put stamps on," said the sergeant delivering these treasures. "When the pencil needs to be sharpened, the guard will bring a new one."
I wrote no letters. My siblings, I knew, were unable to help. My mother was in and out of the loony bin. What was I to tell my father, who was so proud of me? That I’d been arrested and needed a lawyer?
But I had done nothing wrong. That no charges had been filed must mean something. I would wait until I knew. Until I was cleared. Maybe I would tell Dad about it when I got home and we'd have a good laugh.
I saw no television, heard no radio, had no visitors, received no mail. I was disappointed that the Jewish chaplain, the only rabbi in Korea and my friend, didn't come, but perhaps he didn't know where I was being held. More likely I was not allowed visitors.
Every few days I was given back copies of Stars & Stripes. One carried a brief report of my arrest, and there it was: A million dollars in diamonds, that was what was in the package. The story said that I’d been charged with violating Army postal regulations, had been relieved of duty while awaiting court-martial. Nothing about pretrial confinement.
Noting the newspaper's date, I asked my guard to get the master sergeant. He turned up after lunch, a tall, bulky, balding man, mildly annoyed. "What's your problem, Captain?"
"I have now been here over fifteen days. I have not been charged. I want to know why I am being held, and if you can't give me an answer, then I demand to speak with someone who can."
A look of wonder spread across the noncom's face. "You're a prisoner. You don't demand anything. Sir," he said, the last word emitted like a curse.
"No one subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice may be confined without charges. That's the law. Now that this has come to your attention, it’s your duty to investigate," I added.
He turned on his heel and left. An hour later I was escorted to the commander's office. Tall, slim, perhaps thirty, the MP captain glared contemptuously from behind his steel desk, then muttered, "How the hell do guys like you and Calley get a commission?"
My head swam. In one breath I was equated with a mass murderer, a war criminal. Instead of replying, I cited regulations about pre-trial confinement, formal charges, written orders.
"This is a SOFA case," said the MP captain. The Status of Forces Agreement — a treaty between the US and the ROK. If an American was accused of violating Korean law, the ROK had ten days to inform the US Embassy if it would take jurisdiction. After ten days without notice, it was a US case.
I reminded him how long I had been held; if the ROK had taken jurisdiction, formal notification was required. "I'll check on it," he said.
I wrote a letter to my congressman, outlining my situation, and gave it to a guard to mail. Another guard returned it. “Immediate family only," he said.
To occupy myself, I wrote stories. I began with one about the winter night when my wife invited a neighbor to dinner. Then I read it aloud, describing how, after eating, my wife removed her clothes and stretched out on the floor. The neighbor opened a tiny briefcase, consulted a tiny chart, drew tiny circles on her long johns, deftly inserted tiny needles though the fabric.
The guard chortled. I knew that I was on to something.
I ate, slept, exercised, defecated, wrote. Daily I expected redemption, a personal messiah, a lawyer. Maybe today, I thought, on awaking. Probably tomorrow, I told myself each night.
Weeks passed. I realized that I was no longer in the same Army that I had joined as a teenager: this Army didn't know me. I no longer had a home.
So when I was driven to Seoul to meet an Army lawyer, I was not surprised to learn that he was no messiah. I was an embarrassment, he said. He wished that he, personally could nail me to a cross. Instead I would be tried by the Koreans.
I cited the SOFA treaty’s mandate that the ROK take jurisdiction within ten days. “The law is clear,” I said. “They can’t claim jurisdiction now.”
He passed me a list of names and numbers. “Korean attorneys authorized to defend US citizens,” he said, his voice dripping with contempt. “Pick one.”
My crucifixion had been outsourced.
I chose one at random: Paek. In an Army conference room, he shorthanded Korean jurisprudence: There was the law, and there was the practice of law. Korea boasted only one law school. Over the course of their careers, judges, prosecutors and attorneys — classmates and in many ways closer than family — played musical chairs. Three-judge panels decided cases – no juries. Those arrested are guilty until proven innocent. In 15 years as a prosecutor, Paek knew of no defendant acquitted at trial. “No judge will shame a prosecutor – his classmate,” he explained.
In a nation of notoriously corrupt police, Customs agents were inoculated against bribery with a bounty: half the value of seized goods. The agents who tracked the contraband diamonds from Seoul’s international post office to my unit postal clerk would share in the proceeds of their sale: $500,000 — a year’s payroll for 400 cops.
“If I am convicted?”
“When you are convicted.”
I turned it over in my mind on the ride back to Barbed Wire City. I’d never get a court-martial. The Koreans would find me guilty. Even if I avoided prison, my Army career was over.
Paek’s parting words rang in my ears: “Learn to think like a Korean.”
After much rumination, I told Paek — in the peculiar manner favored by Koreans of saying things without actually saying them — to have his prosecutor pals disappear most of the evidence — the diamonds — and destroy the paperwork. Then my faithless wife and our child were allowed to leave Korea.
After a mysterious office fire, the prosecutor's new inventory revealed that Customs’ appraisal was “overly-exuberant.” Felony charges carrying a mandatory 25 year prison sentence became misdemeanors, allowing judges discretion in sentencing. I pleaded guilty. To save Customs’ face, the judges gave me the maximum seven years.
Paek appealed my sentence. I sold my car; the proceeds went to the appellate court’s chief administrative judge — Paek’s uncle! — who then selected judges to hear my appeal.
Seven years became two — suspended.
In Korea’s tight-knit legal community, Paek became a peerless rainmaker. And rich. Diamond Jim Brady rich.
I resigned my commission, divorced my wife and started a new life.
Fast forward to the post-9/11 era: U.S. citizens detained in military brigs without charges or hearings. Suspects transferred to foreign custody for interrogation.
Old news to me.
Justice? Don’t talk to me about justice.
Call me lucky.
© 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
11/8/2017 09:40:40 am
I would love to hear your stories.
11/8/2017 09:59:00 am
Good one. Fiction I presume.
11/8/2017 02:28:48 pm
marv, what a life , and what a wife! You'd pobably be a full bird by now if it wasn't for that turkey.
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FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.