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“Nightmares During Wartime in Asia–Imagined and Actual” [with guest blogger]

Today’s blog is written jointly with Rachael Rifkin who keeps the blog Family Resemblance (  It’s a lovely tribute to her grandfather, Sidney Goldstein, who was a medic during the Korean War.

Rachael's grandfather

Rachael’s grandfather, Sidney Goldstein.

His wife kept all his letters sent to her during that conflict. Rachael discovered them in the garage.  Her blog is dedicated to him and his life.

Our work is similar:  we both pay tribute to beloved family members who experienced war.  My mother, Joan, experienced war on the home front.  Rachael’s grandfather, Sidney, experienced it in the field.  We would like to pay tribute to both experiences by seeing how Asia appeared to Americans in wartime.

Five days before her 16th birthday, Joan hears reports of Japan’s increasing aggression in Asia.

Wednesday, December 15, 1937

. . . The other day Japan bombed three American ships[1]—one a gunboat—that were in some Chinese harbor and everyone thought there was going to be a war—there wasn’t though, so it’s all right—I hope.

[1] In the margin, Joan wrote “Panay bombing.” The Panay was the US gunboat bombed on December 12, 1937.  You can view a newsreel Joan sees of the Panay bombing and Japanese incursions into China here.

USS Panay sinking after Japanese air attack. Nanking, China. 12 December 1937.
USS Panay sinking after Japanese air attack. Nanking, China. 12 December 1937.

Monday, December 20, 1937   

I am fifteen years old. Fifteen years ago I was not, now I am—fifteen years from now—who knows? It gives you a queer feeling—your birthday . . .P.S. Italy and Germany and Japan have a triple alliance now—whatever that means. And the Japanese had a peace assembly at Tokyo this week and are still killing people in China—nice world, isn’t it? 

Tensions escalate between the West and Japan.  Boys she knows may be enlisted and even killed, should war begin.

Sunday, February 13, 1938. . . The United States (mine), England and France—the three great democracies as the paper glaringly puts it—sent a note to Japan last week demanding that she cut down on her navies—and yesterday the note came back with an answer—“Go to it—let’s have a naval race”—or to the point. And then Thursday night they had a program on the radio discussing the next war in confident tones. Somehow everything seems to point to 1940 as the turning point—as the time when the climax is reached. Everyone seems sure that there will be a war soon. I was talking to a boy in school Friday about war and death. He seemed sure that there’d be another war (another, oh!) and he said he’d probably be killed in it. All the boys I know will be old enough to die in a war in 1940. When I said, “And afterwards—?”, he said, “Well, if there’s anything to see—afterwards—I’ll see it, and if not, well, I won’t know about it.” Which is, after all, the only thing to say. But think 1940—death—war—oh, why must it be?

Joan at camp the day war begins in Europe

Joan at camp the day war begins in Europe; see how young she is (only 16)–so are the boys she knows

Finally, Joan’s fears enter her subconscious.  She dreams about war in China.

Saturday, March 5, 1938

I had another dream about war last night—I dreamt that the Chinese and Japanese were fighting and that I and about 50 other neutral people—white—were behind the Chinese lines. The fighting got worse and worse and we decided to go over to the Japanese lines—but the place between was awfully dangerous. I kept saying, “Oh, go on over—we’re sure to die if we stay—we must do something.” And I kept thinking it terribly loud, too.

While we were deciding, the Japanese captured the place and conquered the Chinese—we wanted to escape but there was a sentinel at the only free place. So we went to the Japanese commander and asked him to let us go free—when I say “we,” I mean I and a few others asked that all 50 might go free. The Japanese commander thought and said, “I will let you all go free on [the] condition that I may kill the last one to leave.”

This map shows Japanese incursions into China in 1940

This map shows Japanese incursions into China in 1940; Japanese occupation in red.

So we left in a hurry and then others formed a line for leaving. We who had left stood around outside the camp to see what would happen—as people will—especially to see who would be the last. One man in the middle of the line deliberately walked back and placed himself at the end—self-sacrifice. I recognized him as a famous doctor-scientist and I thought, “He can’t do that—think of what he means to the world. If I were to die, it wouldn’t matter so much—I want to be something but I may never be worthwhile and he is already. I will go and place myself at the end of the line.”

And I believe I actually was going to do so. But other men were at the end of the line—trying each to be last—wholesale self-sacrifice—and as I watched the dream faded—or at least I can remember no more.

I don’t know what happened then. . . .

Then, Pearl Harbor happens.  But I’ll tell about Joan’s diary entry on December 7, 1941 another time. You can read another blogpost about the Pacific theater of war and American nurses here.

Rachael’s grandfather was also in Asia, but a number of years later.  Sidney was there for the Korean War, a conflict that lasted from June 25, 1950 – July 27, 1953.

Rachael writes movingly about the legacy of her grandfather. And his letters are strangely reminiscent of Joan’s diaries.  Here follow Rachael’s words:

Sometimes I put myself in my grandmother’s position, imagining the fear and anxiety she must have felt with my grandfather away in Korea, not knowing if he’d return home. She spent a year and a half with the uncertainty, and the aftereffects are still with her today. Whenever my grandfather’s stint in Korea is brought up, she tells me and my mother how afraid she was that he wouldn’t make it back. If he hadn’t, she reminds us, neither of us would here today.

Ruth and Sidney Goldstein in South Carolina. Sidney was stationed there before he went to Korea.

Ruth and Sidney Goldstein in South Carolina. Sidney was stationed there before he went to Korea.

Despite the small fraction of worry that invades when I read my grandfather’s letters, it’s usually hard for me to take the potential of danger seriously. For one thing, I already know he made it home safe. For another, as a medic he was never stationed in the frontlines. He also spent a good portion of his 1951 letters reassuring my grandmother that he was safe.

Turns out he sometimes omitted things. Things like screams in the night, overturned jeeps, and rides through landmine territory with only the inky blackness of night to keep you company. Caught off guard by how close he came to death, for the first time I got a real sense of what my grandmother might have felt like when she read this letter for the first time.

He tells my grandmother about these incidents months later as he’s on his way to the safety of his new station in Japan. He says he didn’t want to worry my grandmother while they were still in Korea, but I can’t help feeling a little deceived. He pledged to write honestly and in detail about his experiences, but I bet if I look back at his June, July and September 1951 entries (which I eventually plan to do) he won’t even hint at the real story. To be fair, my grandmother is a big worrier, so the omission was probably wise. But as a reader and granddaughter who believed he would tell the truth, I’m a little dismayed.

Rachael writes:  "My grandfather's caption reads: The Road Back after endless months in Korea. The trip to Chuncheon has begun and the convoy eagerly starts rolling despite the freezing weather, Jan '52."

Sidney Goldstein’s caption: “The Road Back after endless months in Korea. The trip to Chuncheon has begun and the convoy eagerly starts rolling despite the freezing weather, Jan ’52.”

Nonetheless, the passage below is one of my favorites. Much like Joan’s dreams, it’s full of suspense and danger, and offers a close look at the horrors of war. Though separated by time and different conflicts, their descriptions of war—in particular, that indefatigable need to flee and survive—are strikingly similar.

1/26/52 1:45 PM

On Board USS George Clymer

USS George Clymer (APA-27) underway, date and location unknown

USS George Clymer (APA-27) underway, date and location unknown

 Dearest Ruthie:

Calm satisfaction and inner peace still pervade my being; I’m looking forward to unique and tasty meals in Japan with the same eagerness that we both experienced when we were on our honeymoon. While on board this ship, I have already finished the book Caine Mutiny.

First edition cover.  It became a famous play and movie.

First edition cover. It became a famous play and movie.

Another roll of film to be developed and I now have color film in my camera primed and ready to go. Even though I have been on the high seas for only three days, the wonderful joys of civilization has made Korea a dim recollection.

Now to tell you a few war stories “with my helmet on,” as the expression goes. Lt. Sparkman has told you not to believe my war stories and that is your right. Oh yes! Before I start, I would like to say that the rumor of the bombing of Chuncheon

Chuncheon, Korea.

Chuncheon, Korea.

and the derailment of the railroad train were absolutely false. It’s true I did not tell you everything about Korea, but I did not want to worry you needlessly and make you gray ahead of your time.

Let us turn back the calendar to June of 1951, the month of my grand debut in Korea. At that time there was still the danger of communists infiltrating our lines. They enjoyed attacking vulnerable spots that could not easily defend themselves such as medical installations. In fact, in the months of April and May, several doctors, medical aid men, and even chaplains, were killed during such sneak night raids.

During my early days in Korea, I carried a gun and I wouldn’t have hesitated to use it either. I had the strange sensation that I would be shot in the head by an enemy sniper lurking in the bushes or the overhanging, perpetual hills which always surrounded us no matter where we rode or walked.

In early July, several communist infiltrators were killed about two miles from our position, but some of them escaped. For an entire week we spent anxious, sleepless nights with our loaded guns within arm’s length.

I’ll never forget one night; I posted my medics as guards around the aid station. At least ten times I could hear their determined voice shouting: “Halt, who goes there?” At about 3 am a shot suddenly rang out. I thought that was the beginning of the fireworks but no more shots were fired. The thousand and one noises we heard that night were interpreted as belonging to the Chinese guerrillas.

My grandfather's caption reads: Posing before my overturned ambulance, Nov. '51

Sidney Goldstein’s caption: “Posing before my overturned ambulance, Nov. ’51.”

Without warning, at 5 am we heard a blood-curdling scream. It sounded as if one of the guards had suddenly been choked or stabbed to death. Now we’re going to get it for sure, I thought as I grabbed my gun. But a strange silence ensued and I prayed fervently for the dawn. At 6:15 am came the dawn, and I cannot tell you how thankful and appreciative I was of the Biblical saying: “Let there be light.”

With the coming of the light, we felt safe and secure. I later discovered that the shot that rang out in the night could be attributed to a nervous GI who shot at what he thought was a moving figure on the road. Oh, the blood-curdling scream! One of the cooks it seems was having a dream in which he was tied with ropes by the communists and they were about, to crush him with a steamroller. No wonder he awoke with a fearful scream!

There was one other time I appreciated the saying “Let there be light.” Do you remember that 150 mile march I told you about? Well, I was wrong; it was only 26 miles. Do you remember telling me of reading about a company of our men who had been trapped by the communists? It so happens that my artillery battalion made that night march in order to come to their aid.

Rachael's grandfather did not write anything about this photo.

Sidney Goldstein captured this tank in action.

The night of Sept. 18 was a nightmare I will never for­get. It was the first taste of blackout driving for my medics and me and we did ourselves proud. We all kept a sharp lookout for the road; after all we didn’t want to drive over a mountain pass. Suddenly my driver, Corporal Gehrs, and I saw white tape ahead of us and just to the side of the road. We instinctively stopped and drove around the white marker. We later learned that a white marker indicates that there is a minefield at that spot.

At about 10 pm that same night, word reached us that one of our trucks had overturned while rounding a turn. I envisioned dead, crushed bodies and bleeding galore, but all I had to treat were contusions and painful shoulders. Then at 11:30 pm the medics were called again: in going off the road, a jeep had set off a booby trap. We weren’t told where the incident occurred. We drove everywhere in the darkness and couldn’t find a soul. In the meantime, about 1,000 yards ahead of us, we saw machine guns playing a deadly game and tracers and flairs lit up the sky. Why, heck, that was the fighting front.

Eventually, we came to a fork in the road, and fearing that one of the roads might lead to communist territory, decided that a 50-50 gamble with our lives was not worth it. We retraced our steps instead. Fifteen minutes later we found the four victims of the booby trap explosion. They were all badly shaken, hurt and staring vacantly.

Medics helping wounded soldier during the Korean war.

Medics helping wounded soldier during the Korean war.  Photo and story here.

I gave one of them a plasma transfusion; he later lost his leg. Suddenly, we went over a bump, which resulted in the wounded men cowering in fear, hands covering their faces and bodies assuming the fetal position. Turning to three of my medics, I said, “Take the men to the clearing station, wherever that may be. Good luck.”

With the above two incidents occurring in rapid succession, we had to break convoy and became totally lost. For a while, we found ourselves following the vehicles of an infantry outfit that was also part of the large convoy. We had the uneasy feeling that we were going to the front lines with the infantry. Soon dense silence engulfed us; we realized that once more we were all alone but had to keep moving.

And so from 12 pm-5 am, we wandered through the deep darkness hearing machine gunfire in front of us and behind us with occasional flares lighting up the sky. We drove slowly, making sure we stuck to the hard asphalt road, wondering when the explosion from the minefields would occur. We were relieved that all we heard was the rumbling of our trucks and deafening silence.

Finally at 5 am, we stumbled upon our Headquarters Battery and one of the officers greeted me with: “Say, doc, I’m glad you finally caught up to us.” But I was still wary—I did not want to walk around the area for fear of mines, so I slept in the jeep for an hour and a half and boy was I cold! When I awoke at 6:30 am, I saw the most beautiful, welcome light of the dawn. Again I said thankfully to myself: ”Let there be light.”

From then on we were in minefield territory. One of the fellows stepped on a booby trap a hundred yards away from my aid station and was blown into grotesque bits. This booby trap was located near a Korean hut. In fact, I wanted to take a picture of this hut with its thatched roof, but I decided against it for I knew that Christmas trees, houses and valuables lying on the ground were favorite places to plant booby traps. I instructed my medics most emphatically not to wander across the fields and to stick to the straight and well-trodden path or road.

See this page for much more fascinating information about the Military Air Transportation Service.

See this page for much more fascinating information about the Military Air Transportation Service.

In our last position, a vehicle from an ordinance outfit drove across the fields to get to another road and set off not one but three mines (not booby traps this time). It completely demolished the jeep so that anyone could have lifted it with his hands. One fellow was killed outright, two died in my ambulance, and the fourth died the next day. So much about minefields, but I hope that Lt. Rack and his medics of the 40th Division take my advice about the minefields seriously.

There are more war stories to tell, but that should wait for the breakfast table. Suffice it to say, what saved most of us was our alertness and common sense.

Now don’t shudder, Beautiful. I am safe, sound, happy, very much alive, and love you terrifically with all my heart.

Sidney on board USS George Clymer, Jan '52.

Sidney on board USS George Clymer, Jan ’52.

 Rachael and I hope you enjoyed this joint blogpost today!

2 responses »

  1. Wow, thank you for the Nanking link! My grandparents and my mother (British and Russian) were in Shanghai at the time this happened. Great news footage link which will be helpful to me as I continue to uncover their lives during wartime. Your family has an interesting background. Loved the post.


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