The leper colony

Monday, December 15, 2014

I was drafted into the Army in 1950, about five months into the Korean War. Eventually I was sent to Korea and was assigned to a bread making company in the Quartermaster Corps. The Chinese had entered the war by the time I got there and we were kept pretty busy making bread for the 8th Army and the Marines who fought above the 38th Parallel. However, there would be times when we were caught up on our requisitions for the troops and at such times we were able to deliver bread to some of the orphanages and other humanitarian institutions in the area.

It was sometime in the late spring. The sun was warm---the kind of day when you just want to be outside. As had happened numerous times before, I was just finishing my breakfast coffee when Sgt. Cotton came over to our table.

"Come on, little buddy. Finish your coffee. It's a beautiful day, and we're going to the beach for a little sun and relaxation. Connors is just finishing loading up and if we get in gear he'll take us to Inchon. Ah, sunshine and leisure. It'll be great!"

I had a few letters to write, but then I always had a few letters to write. And this little trip might give me something to write about. I hurried, and was waiting at the gate when Connors, with Cotton in the back of the truck, came by.

Connors explained that he had a half load of bread, which he was going to leave at the Leper Colony at Ascom City, which was on the main highway, halfway to Inchon. After that he was headed on to Inchon, to pick up supplies.

I knew that the Leper Colony was one of the institutions where we delivered surplus bread, but I had never been there before.

Twenty minutes later we stopped at the main gate of the Leper Colony. The security of that compound was at least as stringent as our own. There was a barbed wire fence entirely around a cluster of buildings, which consisted of a few rather large one story, community buildings, ringed by many small, family living huts. The difference between our compound and the Leper Colony was that our fence was meant to keep people out, while this one was designed to also keep people in. There were signs attached to the fence all the way around the compound, in English and in Korean, warning people to "Keep Out, Leper Colony!" A uniformed Korean guard approached the truck. He recognized Connor, who had been there many times before, but asked about us. There were to be no visitors inside the compound.

"These fellows are here to help me unload," Connors said matter-of-factly.

"You go, OK," the guard said, satisfied with the explanation, and waved us toward one of the central buildings a little way down the street.

Our destination was the general mess building. Evidently, most of the people in the Colony ate together at this building and worked together in some of the other large buildings. There were dormitories for most of the people, but we were told that some families lived together and prepared their own meals in their own shacks. The Colony was run by the Korean government, which at this time was in disarray because of the War. So, the Leper Colony was being supplied, and to a large degree, administered by the United Nations, which meant that the United States Army was very much involved.

When we pulled up at the mess hall we were immediately surrounded by residents of the Colony, who recognized the GI truck. Many also recognized Connor. All wanted to help with the unloading of the truck. They were indeed friendly, but had I not been prepared for the encounter, I should have felt sick--sick to my stomach, sick at heart. All of the people were stricken with the disease in one way or another. Some had large white patches on their otherwise dark faces and hands. Some had raised blotches of thick skin covering parts of their arms and faces. Some had their hands and feet entirely encased in bandages.

One fellow's nose was almost gone. Another's face was grotesquely drawn, so that his one eye was almost on the level with his nose. And there were children there as well. Some seemed entirely normal, but others bore the tell tale, beginning, signs of the disease.

But what was even harder to take, was the fact that they were all so cheerful. They crowded around Connor, a very large black man, pestering him for candy and cigarettes. They called him, and then us as well, "Ichi Bon," and "You number one GI." There was a general air of celebration as they took our boxes of bread and carried them into the mess hall.

About the time that we had gotten the bread unloaded, an American Army Captain came out of one of the central buildings and walked over to us. He said something, in Korean, to the crowd of lepers, causing them to disperse. Then he spoke to us for a few minutes, while he smoked a cigarette. He told of the work that he did in that Colony on a regular basis. The truth was that there was not much that his medical team could do to cure the victims. The medical people didn't seem to be overly concerned about the contagious aspects of the disease, though the Leper Colony certainly observed the age-old practice of keeping the lepers away from the general population, and that practice was strictly enforced. The Captain's medical team tried their best to keep their charges clean and comfortable, and they addressed their other medical complaints, but as far as the leprosy went, at that time, medical science had few answers. These people were the poorest of the poor, the most wretched people in Korea---people who had been dealt a death sentence by that horrible disease. They were literally people without hope. I guess that is why their outward cheerfulness affected me so deeply.

We were soon on the road again. Cotton and I were considerably shaken by our experience at the Leper Colony, and we rode along in silence. But Cotton, especially, had great resilience, and before we reached Inchon he had switched my mind to pleasant things. By the time the harbor came into view I was feeling pretty good again. But that night, and for many nights after that, I thought of those poor people at the Leper Colony, as I counted my own many blessings.

From the archives of the McCook Daily Gazette

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