Maija Rhee Devine


The Korean War and Chocolate Candies

Maija and her mom

May 16, 1950. My seventh birthday. Mommy, I don’t want to go to bed, don’t want to take off my birthday dress. A red silk skirt. A yellow blouse, sleeves rainbow-striped, yellow, red, blue, green, Mommy sewed. You can wear it again on Chusuk August Harvest Day. In just three months. Great uncle and aunt will come from Suwon. You can show off your dress, and eat dried persimmons you know they will bring you.  

June 25, 1950. North Korea, authorized and supported by the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin, attacks the South. At pre-dawn hours. 200 Soviet-supplied aircraft, 230 T-34 tanks, seven divisions of Soviet-equipped North Korean troops. South Korea has zero tanks.

Uncle Park was right, after all. On January 15 full-moon night, he, Daddy, and neighborhood men huddled in our yard. Mommy and I peeked from our darkened kitchen. The men flashed a mirror toward the moon. This way. That way. Grumbles, whispers. Got it! Circles, colors in the moon. Uh, uh, grrr. We’re dead! North’ll grind us to powder.

June 27, 1950. In just two days, Seoul falls to the army of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. U.S. Ambassador Muccio orders evacuation of 1200 U.S. citizens and others from Seoul. South Korean President Syngman Rhee abandons Seoul.

June 28, 1950. North Korean soldiers march through our neighborhood alleyways, guns, longer than my height, pointing skyward from their shoulders.

Mommy, will they shoot us? If anyone asks what you ate, say, Barley and bean sprout soup. Why? Because we don’t want our rice taken away by communist soldiers.

June 30, 1950. With a United Nations resolution, U.S. President Harry S. Truman orders General Douglas MacArthur to send U.S. troops from Japan.

July 20, 1950. Bring out rice! Three communist soldiers in the middle of the night. One gun points at Mommy. She stumbles, bare feet, across the yard, climbs up cement stairs to the clay jar stand above soldiers’ heads. Soldiers came and got all our rice already. Her voice shakes. She yanks open the lids of jars as tall as her chest. Come up and see! All empty! One soldier lifts his gun and levels at her. I slink down on the hallway floor. Mommy is lying. I know there’s rice in two of the jars. I cannot hold it any longer. A warm puddle spreads from me to the wood.

July 29-September 15, 1950. US/UNC/ROK forces are trapped in Pusan Perimeter, southeastern most tip–(the “butt area”) of the entire Korean Peninsula shaped like a rabbit standing on its hind legs. The Allied forces battle against North Korean assaults along Nakdong River, determined to storm out of the Perimeter. Gen. Walker tells his troops, Stand or die.

September 15, 1950. General Douglas MacArthur’s Operation Chromite, Inchon Landing, with LST landing craft among 260 water craft, succeeds! Dae Han Min Guk, Monse! Long Live, Republic of Korea! Seoul is recovered. North Korean forces scrambling to retreat from Pusan Perimeter back to North Korea, north of the 38th Parallel, are attacked, slaughtered.

September 29, 1950. UNC and South Korean forces reoccupy Seoul and soon cross 38th Parallel, and General Paik Sun-yup and his South Korean troops take Pyongyang. His soldiers did not have to obey his order: If I retreat, shoot me!

October 2, 1950. Chinese enter N. Korea. Over 200,000 troops cross the Yalu River under cloudy skies and in the dark of night.

Nov. 24, 1950. Chinese launch offensive. Chinese Communists are coming!!!

Nov. & Dec., 1950. The Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, 15,000 allied ground troops—primarily12,000 Marines of the 1st Marine Division—surrounded by 120,000 Chinese troops. We’ll all die!

photo by Carl Mydans

November 25, 1950. I trudge alongside my mom on snow-covered dirt path through barren fields. Mommy, Where’r we going? We’r running away! To the south! From the Chinese soldiers! Where’s Daddy? How will he find us? Yeeeeing, rrrrrr. A plane is about to plow through us, thousands of us, loads on our heads, donkey carts piled high with lumpy bundles and white-haired, white-bearded men, grandmas, babies crying. Tuuutuuuutuuu. Half the people collapse on snow around me. Aiaaaa, Mommy! Don’t squeeze my hand so hard! My fingers will break!  Hurry! Got to catch the train. Cross the river before the bridge is bombed! Daddy’ll find us. I don’t care about his mistress and their baby boy, whom my parents need to carry down our family line. I just want my Daddy.

Nov. 28, 1950. For three days we stay cooped in box cars of a cargo train. It has no seats, no heat, no light, no windows, and no toilets. Thousands of us in so many cars slump against our belongings piled to the ceiling. The metal-against-metal click-clacks in the dark. Finally, we are in Masan. Mommy rents a room in a farmer family’s house. We are far south and safe, Mommy says, not too far from Pusan and Jinhae, both cities by the ocean. We cannot find Daddy. He must be with his mistress and their boy.

December 15, 1950. I catch the nastiest One-Hundred-Day cough. I cough all through December, January, and February. Mommy carries me on her back to and from a Chinese doctor’s every other day, wobbling along dikes, snow-dusted rice paddies on both sides. She sobs while carrying me. Don’t die, my Precious Jade. Don’t die. She calls me Jade on special days. I know then dying is special but she doesn’t want me to do it.

December 20, 1950. 100,000 children become orphans. To save some, Chaplain Colonel Russell Blaisdell, USAF, arranges the “Kiddy Car Airlift.”

Mommy spoons black Chinese medicine into my mouth, six times a day. Don’t die on me, Jade.

December 23, 1950. U.S. General Walker is killed. Gen. George C. Marshall, Secretary of Defense, assigns General Matthew Ridgway to lead MacArthur’s the 8th Army.

December 31, 1950. UNC forces are driven from Seoul by Chinese and North Korean armies.

Dear god of Seven Stars, Mommy prays, don’t let the bastards-to-die-of-typhoid bomb our house in Seoul.

January 4, 1951. North Korean and Chinese forces re-occupy Seoul. Chaplain Colonel Russell Blaisdell, USAF, with the assistance from Lt. Col. Dean Hess, organizes the airlift of orphans from Seoul to Jeju Island.

Let me die, Mommy. I can’t swallow the black medicine any more, Mommy.  

March, 15, 1951. Led by Ridgway, UNC and South Korean forces re-capture Seoul.

My coughing dies out, but I am too weak to start 2nd grade and walk to school.

April 11, 1951. President Truman relieves General Douglas MacArthur of his Far East Command. General Ridgway takes over.

I miss school until May, my 8th birthday month. Then, I start. I also make friends with kids of our neighbor farmers. We climb up a dandelion-covered hill and roll down. What fun!

June, 1951. A train stays stopped on tracks for a long time. It’s packed with GIs, white and black. Hundreds of kids jump up to windows and yell, G.I. gimme gum. Gimme chocolate! Mommy and I draw water, set water pails on the hill and watch. G.I. G.I. Gimme. Gimme. I am scared of their LARGE eyes and LONG noses. I hold onto Mommy’s hand. I see a black G.I. Others drop things in his hat. He walks down the steps and over to me, and fills my pockets with chewing gum and chocolate candies!

Maija and Sang-ho

July, 1951. My cousin, Sang-ho, 5, three years younger than I, comes to live with us. Her mom lives in Pusan. Without Daddy, Mommy has to make money somehow. She travels to Jinhae by train and sells fabric in a big market there. She cannot return home for two or three weeks at a time. My cousin and I are home-alones. After we cook our dandelion soup and barley-mixed rice over fire we build with dry sticks in a portable clay stove, we smoke. Sangho learns to make cigarettes with dried pumpkin leaves and scraps of newspaper. She rolls the leaves in the paper, licks the seam, and hands me the cigarette. We both light up and puff away.

July 10, 1951. Negotiations begin at Kaesong and then move to Pan Munjom at the 38th Parallel.

We catch crawdads with boys and girls. Bare feet, we wade in a stream, overturn rocks, and catch crawdads. Yikes! Something tickles the crack between my big toe and second toe. A leech is sucking blood out of me! Kids run away. One boy, Chulsoo, 11 years old, stays, pulls out the leech.

September, 1951. Rice has been harvested. The sun lathers gold color on short stubbles of harvested rice stalks. Grasshoppers hop about. We boys and girls catch them, string them on weed stems. After a day of fun, Chulsoo gives me all of his grasshoppers to me, to take home and roast over fire for my snacks. The war’s not too bad. Smoking, eating all the grasshoppers I want and having a boy being sweet on me (oh, he also saved me from a snake one day)—if that’s a war, I can take it.

April 8, 1952. Lt. Gen. James A. Van Fleet, Commanding General of the 8th Army loses his son Air Force Capt. James A. Van Fleet, Jr., B-26 bomber pilot.

1952. Not much happens. Negotiations drag on. Fighting along DMZ line. My cousin and I and our merry band of boys and girls find more ways to explore nature, like plucking rice stalks fat with rice and munching while walking from school.

March 5, 1953. Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin dies. Without him, air leaks out of Chinese and North Koreans’ resolve to annihilate South Korea. They become anxious to move towards ending the three-year blood bath.

July 27, 1953. Armistice is signed by North Korea, China, and USA. South Korea refuses to sign because Korea remains divided. Military deaths:

U.S. (37,000 and 103,000 wounded)
China (600,000 and 716,000 wounded)
UNC (3,063 and 11,800 wounded)
USSR (pilots, 100-200)
South Korea (217,000 and 430,000 wounded)
North Korea (406,000 and 1,500,000 wounded)
Civilian deaths: (North and South Korea:1,600,000)
Total deaths (North/South Korea, U.S., UNC, and China), military and civilian: 2.5-3 million.

Chulsoo (Photographer unknown.)

We return to our home in Seoul. At our goodbye, Chulsoo gives me a picture of himself. Mommy’s Seven-Star gods have kept our house from getting bombed. We are reunited with Daddy, his mistress, and their boy baby. The taste of the chocolate candies the black G.I. gave me makes me vow that, when I grow up, I’ll go where they came from. 14 years later, I am at St. Louis University, Missouri. My formal reason for being there? To get a graduate degree. The informal reason? Yes, to eat more American chocolates, and I do.

June, 2020. On the eve of the 70th anniversary of June, 25, 1950 outbreak of the Korean War, I ask, Where are you, Chulsoo? I married a LARGE-eyed and LONG-nosed American. He was not a G.I., but he served as a Peace Corps Volunteer to Korea in 1970. He’s now the retired director of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library, dedicated to the legacy of Truman, our beacon during the Korean War.

Maija Rhee Devine’s autobiographical novel about Korea, The Voices of Heaven, won four awards. Her TEDx Talk showing the book’s relevance to today’s S. Korea is at: Her Master’s is in English Literature from St. Louis University, Missouri. Her prose and poems have appeared in The Kenyon Review, North American Review, her chapbook, Long Walks on Short Days, and anthologies. Her full-volume poetry manuscript, Comfort Women: Freedom From Teeth, made a semi-finalist in the 2019 Crab Orchard Literary Journal contest. The lead poem of the same title is scheduled for publication in Pleiades, June, 2020. Her COVID-19 poems will appear in an anthology, When the Virus Came Calling: COVID-19 Strikes America, (Golden Foothills Pres, CA, September 2020). Her nonfiction and fiction works-in-progress deal with ‘comfort women’ of WWII.  A lecturer at the University of Washington, she gives talks on topics including, Comfort Women of World War II; The Korean War; How Belief in Yin/Yang/Chinese Zodiac Signs Affects Women; Philosophies & Religions of East Asia; and Life through Poetry Within 30 Miles of the DMZ.  Her website:

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