Chocoletto

 

A Korean War Orphan joins the Marines

 
 

April 14, 1953

 
THEY FOUND him in Inchon among the rubble of what had been his home. His mother was lying dead and he was crying. This was the only time they ever saw him cry.
 
By Korean standards the house had been a good one. That was why the North Koreans had marched his father away and perhaps why, on the sixteenth day of September, 1950, with Inchon in flames and the great gray ships waiting out at sea, two excited little men in mustard-colored uniforms had chosen the house as the site for their machine gun.
 
They had kept his mother there to feed them ammunition, but to their credit they had made the youngster go down to the pit where the family kept rice. When the first American Marines appeared, the North Koreans had fired about thirty rounds, killing a young lieutenant just out of college and splintering a bone in the right leg of an ex-coal miner from Illinois.
 
It had taken three rounds from a rocket launcher to silence the North Korean machine guns, and one of the rounds had torn the woman nearly in half. Then, slowly and cautiously, the men in green had moved forward and found the boy. The blast had dazed him, but except for a couple of cuts he was unhurt.
 
He came out of the pit just as the first two Marines were picking their way in through the wreckage, and one of them, startled, almost fired point-blank. When the boy saw his mother’s body, he went to it, crying and shaking his little fists at the big men. The Marine who had almost fired at the boy tried hard but could not keep from vomiting.
 
A Navy corpsman pulled the boy away from the corpse and daubed his cuts with Mercurochrome. After a while the corpsman produced a half-melted candy bar. “Chocoletto?” he asked. The boy at first refused the candy, but then he took it and ate it hungrily. It was not that he forgot his mother but rather that he had not eaten for two days. So for no greater reason than that, he was called “Chocoletto.”
 
MORE Marines arrived. The tanks and the generals, the guns and the privates poured ashore. The First Marine Division-a few cops on the longest and toughest beat in the world-was driving to capture Seoul.
 
The corpsman had to leave but he had a buddy who was attached to the Amphibian Tractors. Before the infantry pushed on, he managed to take Chocoletto to his buddy. The boy was adopted by one of the companies.
 
The tide of war swept on. The Marines fought their way through the houses of blazing Seoul. When the rest of the Eighth Army managed to break out of its beachhead and link up, the Marines were pulled back aboard ship and sent around the peninsula to deliver what was supposed to be a knockout blow to the North Koreans with another landing at the east-coast port of Wonsan.
 
Chocoletto was fortunate in that his company did not stay with the main body of the division but was moved to the south-coast port of Masan to form part of an amphibious raiding force. It was because of this that he did not have to go through the retreat from the Changjin Reservoir.
 
The first month that he was with the Marines he was very quiet. He was baffled by the sudden and complete change in his life. Then slowly he began to change. He started to learn a few words of English and to make friends with the troops. He liked the movies and learned to whistle when a pretty girl came on the screen.
 
NEARLY everybody guessed that he was a bright six-year-old. Even making allowances for the smallness of the Koreans, he was tiny. When he announced one day that he was thirteen, nobody believed him. But a few weeks later in Masan some refugees who had known him in Inchon confirmed that he was Korean thirteen, or stateside twelve.
 
Some of the Marines thought he was lazy. They thought that he was eating too much and dogging his work. Finally he was taken to a Navy doctor, who quickly discovered that he was not lazy but sick, suffering from an almost incurable kidney ailment.
 
Chocoletto had frequent sick spells, but by and large he seemed pretty healthy. He soon became a character. He would watch the Marines drilling and would then round up the other Korean houseboys and drill them in turn. In the privacy of the tents he would give amazingly accurate imitations of some snarling lieutenant or tough top sergeant.
 
His prowess on the drill field even caught the Colonel’s eye, and at a formal ceremony he was made an honorary private lowest class, U.S.M.C. He was told that this put him above an Army major or an Air Force general, but he was urged not to pull rank.
 
One of the Marines had written to his family about Chocoletto, and in time there came a package containing two authentic Hopalong Cassidy six-shooters, a pair of high Texas boots, and a Mexican sombrero. In these and his cut-down dungarees, he was a dashing figure and the envy of every kid in Masan.
 
Perhaps his two major achievements were his amazingly quick acquisition of a vocabulary that made even Navy butchers blush and a miraculous mastery of the little ivories. Every payday saw Chocoletto challenging the old masters and pretty regularly coming out on top, thanks to his superior vocabulary. Before long he had a bank roll that would choke a horse.
 
He was sneaked aboard a transport for one of the raids that the Marines made on the North Korean rear, and this nearly proved his undoing: He was thrown into a Navy brig when he was discovered. This might not have happened if he had not castigated the Captain as a “goddam swabbie,” when the latter refused to let him go ashore with the raiders. He borrowed a beret from one of the British Royal Marine Commandos who were in on the raid, and they say he even acquired a British accent for a few days, but many of his friends deny this.
 
 
In the spring of 1951, the Eighth Army managed to push the Communists back to the 38th Parallel in a series of “Killer” offensives. Chocoletto’s outfit-as it was now called by a lot of people-moved back to Inchon. It first had the mission of evacuating the left flank of the Army if the Chinese should manage to mount another great offensive. The Marines were inactive for quite a long period, waiting for this emergency call which fortunately never came.
 
 
FINALLY they were committed to battle again. Just above Seoul lies the Kimpo Peninsula and to the west a group of small islands. South Korean guerrillas commanded by Army paratroopers held the islands. A task force was organized from Armored Amphibians, Amphibians, Korean Marines, and a ROK Army battalion to take over the defense of the mainland.
 
When they moved up to the front the Marines had tried to leave Chocoletto behind with the rear party in his native Inchon. He meekly promised to obey and made a surprisingly quiet farewell. Two days later he appeared at the forward command post, having tramped the thirty-odd miles on foot. Nobody thought of sending him back.
 
He was invaluable. Nearly every man was needed on the guns or in the forward outposts. Chocoletto took the lead in rounding up enough of the local inhabitants to do all the noncombat work and to handle all the ammunition and supplies. In a week the Major gave the twelve-year-old another promotion, and he was now a fullfledged private.
 
He got his next two stripes rapidly. The enemy guerrillas in the area were pretty quiet, but they were still there. By some devious method Chocoletto learned that the enemy was planning a series of raids on a big airfield in the neighborhood for the night of a Korean holiday.
 
It would have been pleasant, with this information, to wait for the attack and then clip them. But the risk could not be taken because there were too many valuable planes at the airfield. The Marines had to shift reinforcements ostentatiously into the airfield area. The guerrillas took the hint and confined themselves to shooting their weapons from a great distance and setting off flares. They did no damage at all.
 
This was the beginning of Chocoletto’s career as an intelligence man. It received a great boost and he made a second stripe when the regular interpreter stepped into a Korean latrine and had to be moved away from contact with mankind for several days.
 
The Korean winter was stark and bleak. Whenever the men brought back their tractors and tanks to refuel they found Chocoletto at the C.P., which was as far forward as the Major would let him go. Although he most certainly cannot be said to have reminded them of their own kids, or of anything else back home, the men always looked forward to seeing him.
 
THE SNOW finally began to melt, and the Korean earth again began to give out its unforgettable aromas. About this time the powers that be realized what a good job the Marines were doing. Then came the visitors.
 
The Army started to send a steady stream of gorgeously bedecked staff officers up from Seoul. Fighting the enemy became a secondary function.
At this time Chocoletto averted a serous crisis. There was a certain one-star general who shall only be referred to as “Iron Pants.” Iron Pants had a complete command of military tactics as employed during the Revolution and that was all. He possessed an unshakable conviction that the only way to fire artillery was by salvo.
 
The Marines usually kept a sentry down the road to warn them about intruders such as this, but one fine day Iron Pants arrived without warning. He was almost upon the C.P. when the guns began to pop off with their usual deadly accuracy but very decidedly not in salvos. The General turned a deep red and then a gorgeous purple and stormed up the draw that led to the Major. Chocoletto had seen him coming, however, and raced up to the Major crying “Steeltail! Steeltail!” Fortunately Iron Pants was famous enough for the Major to guess immediately who it was. He signaled the man at fire control to order a cease-fire.
 
Iron Pants came to the point quickly. “Do you Marines ever obey orders?” he grated out.“Why, yes, sir,” replied the Major with an air of vast bewilderment. Iron Pants could barely squeeze the word “salvos” from his trembling lips.
 
“But did the General count the guns that were fired?” asked the Major. The General was a little startled at this and allowed that he had not.
 
“If the General had counted the guns, he would have found that we were firing a thirteen-gun salute in his honor.”
 
Nobody knew whether to cheer or pray. Iron Pants swallowed, then turned briskly on his heel and started back to Seoul. For his timely warning Chocoletto was promoted from corporal to sergeant.
 
ON ONE other occasion his success was not so great. A ramshackle hut near the C.P. served as an officers’ mess. It was decorated with an extensive collection of pin-up girls, both American and Japanese.One evening as the officers were arriving for dinner, Chocoletto came up to meet them. He announced piously that “Number One Chaplain” had arrived. The reverent tone seemed strange, since Chocoletto and the Navy Chaplain had not generally been considered buddies, mostly because of the different uses they made of the Lord’s name.
 
Just as the officers neared the hut, the door opened. Out stepped not the Navy Chaplain but one of the most distinguished-looking clerics ever seen anywhere—especially in Korea. He introduced himself as the Anglican Bishop of Korea. Everybody immediately thought of the pin-ups with terror. Since it was far too late to do anything about it, all that remained was to go in the hut and suffer.
 
Then Chocoletto’s stock went sky-high. He had thrown maps over all the young ladies. The only photographs visible were of adoring wives and children or faithful cocker spaniels. The evening passed agreeably, and the officers all found the Bishop very easy to get along with.
The next morning, as he was leaving, the Bishop remarked, “You know, it you chaps really think Miss Monroe should be covered up, you should put your maps right side up.”
 
AS THE spring wore on, Chocoletto began to get his sick spells more often. It was clear that he would have to be operated on if he was to survive the summer. The Major took him aside one day and told him the whole story. The boy listened without saying a word. Finally he said, “Let’s go Major.”
 
He was sent to the big Army hospital in Uijongbu outside Seoul with a rocker under his three stripes for added prestige. But he was not an unlimited success there. Somehow or other in his association with the Marine Corps he had acquired a lot of uncomplimentary opinions about the United States Army.
 
First word that anything was wrong came in a tersely worded communiqué from the hospital. It read “Staff Sergeant Chocoletto, USMC is as of 24 March reduced to the rank of Corporal. (signed) Florence P. Hanks, Captain, USANC.”
 
A week later one of the Marine supply sergeants managed to get in to see him. He seemed reluctant to sit up in bed. The Sergeant tried to find out what was wrong but for a long time could not elicit any answer. Finally Chocoletto pulled out a pajamaed arm and said simply “Look.” On it was the solitary chevron of a private first class.
 
Chocoletto did not volunteer any information, but he was the only one who was silent on his activities. He had apparently reacted badly to Army discipline. He had questioned the ancestry of several nurses back to the third and fourth generation.
 
He routed several well-intentioned females in this fashion until he finally met his match in Captain Hanks. he Captain was a redoubtable lady who gave every indication of having tangled with quite a few leathernecks in days well gone by. She managed to quell this one decisively.
 
Chocoletto mellowed somewhat while under this female care. He lost a little of his saltiness and even learned to finish a sentence without using any profanity or obscenity, but on payday his dice still clicked and his bank roll continued to grow.
 
IN APRIL he went aboard the Danish hospital ship Jutlandia outside Inchon harbor, and the surgeons decided to operate immediately. They discovered that his organs were in very bad shape. The operation undoubtedly prolonged his life, but complete recovery was not possible. Nobody told Chocoletto the details, but he was too smart not to understand. The Danes put him back ashore loaded down with presents.
 
The Major had worked out a deal with a guard detachment in Japan to have Chocoletto sent over there, but the boy would have nothing to do with it. Instead of spending the rest of his short life enjoying a few of the comforts that most children take for granted, he preferred to return to the front to share the dangers and privations of the only friends he had.
 
by Peter Linden,
New York Reporter
 
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