THE GREAT CHOCOLATE MYSTERY
By Martin Ough Dealy
My memories of Korea are now over 56 years old and so are hazy. But I do have a clear impression of the seasons of what was then a hard place ravaged by a savage war.
I arrived at the height of the summer, a season of heat, some rain and winds. The weather was generally hot and humid with high temperature of over 38 degrees C. Nights were made uncomfortable by the heat and humidity. But the strongest recollection was of a season of swarming flies and smells. Flies were everywhere and settled in seething masses on anything that offered them sustenance. Smells were pervasive especially near human settlements and rice fields where the contents of the village "honey pots " for night soil were distributed daily.
The autumn provided relief. The season was marked by crisp weather, much sunlight and wonderful blue skies. These contrasted with the desolated land. Few trees seemed to have survived the war and the colours were unnaturally muted and drab. The last days were marked by blustery winds from the north. These blasts gave warning of the harsher cold of the winter to come.
Winter started with a vengeance by the end of November. There wasn’t much snow. In fact I cannot remember any real snow storms through the winter. Ice was the predominating feature. The dry winds sweeping from Manchuria in the north emanated from the Siberian arctic quickly brought the temperatures down to below zero. By the end of December the Han River had frozen solid and the ice was thick enough to bear the weight of trucks. Minus 10 degrees Centigrade was a common midday temperature but the wind brought with it a chill that emphasized the common misery.
Our camp was in Yong Dong Po on the sea side of the River Han near Seoul. Well, yes, really.... that was its name although I may have taken license with its spelling. The name of the area was not something out of the Goon Show despite the rendition of "Yong Dong Yiddle Eye Po......eeee!" That song was of fun and laughter whereas the Yong Dong Po of my recollection was hardly that.
The Number 1 Infantry Troops Recovery Unit REME shared a destroyed factory with the Corps Troops Workshop REME. The factory had been a large one and I believe made sewing machines in its heyday. But in 1954 it was a mere shell.
The brick walls were still standing but for the most part there was no roof and few of the entrances had doors. So there was little protection from the winter winds. The lads working there had to be careful not to pick up tools without gloves on as cold metal stuck to bare skin in the low temperatures that prevailed even inside the workshop.
But the buildings were the best on offer and so became the accommodation for the workshop. ITRU used most of the empty grounds of factory as a temporary park for all the wrecked equipment that we had back loaded from the British Commonwealth Division at the front. These were kept there until there was shipping in the port of Inchon to send the gear onto the base in Japan for repair.
The whole place was surrounded by a high barbed wire fence with a few watch towers and powerful lights to discourage marauders. Even though we deployed armed guards on a 24 basis we still lost a significant amount of gear to the gangs of thieves that operated throughout the area.
Apart from the factory all our accommodation was tented. Everything was under canvas except the home made bathhouse, the long drops and one or two Quonset Huts used for stores and an office. These were mainly wooden structures and did offer some protection from the icy wind. The long drops were reliable even in winter but I am afraid the home made bathhouse succumbed round about Christmas time as all the water pipes froze and nothing in it worked again until the spring. We relied for the next three months on basins of water from the cookhouse for our ablutions. The water left the cookhouse nice and hot, but if you were too slow it very quickly turned cold, sometimes forming a skimming of ice before you finished your attempt to keep clean.
I must say that the Army kit issued to us was very good at combating the cold. It was issued for "winter warfare" and had been properly designed for the purpose. It consisted of several layers, starting with string vests, long johns made of flannel, woollen shirts, combat jackets and trousers made of a wind and waterproof material with balaclavas and combat hats for keeping the head warm. We were also issued with three pairs of gloves to form three layers of protection for hands and fingers. Covering all this was the "Parka Winter Warfare". We also had very good sleeping bags and woollen pyjamas. Even the boots were of a special issue, being extra large to accommodate thick woollen socks and special insulation inserts. The cold was tolerable when you had all this gear on. The agony was in the process of getting it on or off. Any exposure of bare skin to the elements especially during calls of nature or getting into or out of "bed" was generally an uncomfortable experience. Some of our lads at the end of a long hard day at work would go to bed all standing (boots and all) if they could get away with it.
I also must say that the rations issued were pretty good. The Army certainly believed in the saying that an "Army marches on its stomach" and so made sure that our voracious appetites were kept satisfied. Of course the cooks had a great influence on what finally ended up in the messes, but our lot were pretty good even if a bit unimaginative.
Part of our weekly ration was a tin of cigarettes and a great slab of chocolate. Of all that we received to keep body and soul together, these were the most prized; they were stored separately as "special rations" under lock and key. Woes betide anyone who fiddled about with the issue of these! They were not only prized as a solace, but also as a currency. It was amazing what you could get if you were willing to exchange them, both within and outside the camp.
Of course as the most junior officer in the place I drew the short straw and was given the duty of supervising the NCO i/c special rations. We were on active service so we were not required to account too meticulously for most things. But the special rations were one of the exceptions. These had to be accounted for very carefully. First we had to make sure that our issue matched how many men we had on unit strength - we were always suspicious of being given short rations by someone further up the supply chain. Second we kept a meticulous record of the quantities going into the store, the total in store and the quantities issued. The latter always had to match each week the number of men in the camp so that everyone got their ration without fail.
For the first few months of my duty things went well and there was no problem. But then the winter set in. Shortly after Christmas my rations NCO appeared looking very worried indeed. He had opened the special ration store to prepare for the weekly issue and found to his horror that the stock was short by several bars of chocolate. There was no evidence of a break in. The door had not been forced and apart from some of the chocolate stock being disordered there was no clue. Of course my first suspect was the NCO. He was a young likeable national serviceman with no record of great crimes. But he, like all of us in that camp was tempted by the things that bars of chocolate could satisfy and he was one of just a few who had access to the special ration store. Inevitably he became a suspect.
I am glad to say that there was no evidence of wrong doing on his part, or anyone else’s. In any case, by incredible good fortune we had accumulated a small surplus of chocolate over the preceding period and so no one went short. You can imagine the outcry if someone had! So we were able to keep the crisis under wraps for that week.
But the same thing happened the next week. There was another loss of chocolates. Fortunately we were able to keep it undercover again as we still had some of the accumulated surplus to play with.
But with the report of a further loss in the third week by a now very worried NCO, things came to a head. There was now little surplus stock. We had no idea as to who was responsible or how they could have got way with the goods. We really had to get to the bottom of the mystery. So he and I did a thorough search of the store. We had to be careful not to arouse suspicions. Even rumours of a possible deficiency in the supply of chocolate could have caused a riot. Anyway it was going to be difficult to explain to my OC why I was spending so much time in the ration store.
Just as we were approaching the point of defeat and having to face the wrath of our comrades the NCO noticed a hole in the floor boards. Beside it there was a trail of tinsel and droppings. Quickly we ripped up the board and found a trail of more tinsel and wrapping leading further under the floor. Soon we had exposed pieces of partially eaten chocolate bars scattered about amongst the chewed remains of tinsel and wrapping. There was now no doubt that the thieves were the local rats.
Now the Korean rats had a reputation for cunning, persistence, and cruel ruthlessness. I remember often lying in my sleeping bag in the wee hours hearing them scrabbling about in the tent searching for anything edible. They even took to gnawing at the wooden supports and the leather of my boots. Like the flies in summer, the rats in winter were bold and everywhere.
But even with that reputation who was going to believe the story that rats had been responsible for getting away with over 2 dozen bars of Army chocolate?
Somehow we made good the deficiency and remained undiscovered to fight another day. But the Great Chocolate Mystery was still unsolved for everyone else in the camp. We could hardly admit to being bested by wretched rats!
Copyright M.& M.M. Ough Dealy 2007-2010