A. Norman Hopkins: Interpreter for the Interpreter

By Guest Contributor December 7, 2014 01:42

Another FANtastic Tale of Adventure index

By A. Norman Hopkins

About July 1951, Somewhere in Korea — While serving with Baker Company of the 7th Marine Regiment, I was runner for second platoon with Lt. Eddie LaBaron in command. I would stay with the company headquarters group. If the radio and/or phone communications were inoperable, I would personally deliver the company commander’s message to Lt.  LaBaron at the second platoon.

When we were back in support Baker Co. had a new interpreter assigned with us. His name was Shim Bok Sukk. Shim is the surname and comes first according to Korean custom. Shim and I dug in together and started a friendship that lasted for years until we both married and got busy with our families.

Shim’s home had been north of the 38th Parallel. He had been there under the Japanese occupation of his country. At first the North Korean people rejoiced when the Russians “liberated” them after WWII.

They also “liberated” all of the electric stoves and refrigerators in the country. They said it was War Reparations. They loaded them on railroad boxcars and sent them back to Russia.

Shim was a distance runner at his high school. During a track meet in Seoul, Shim could see the way the U.S. Army had liberated the country. The U.S. soldiers were helping the people. At age 16, Shim stayed in South Korea. One of the things that impressed Shim the most, was the way that the United States soldiers would give candy and chewing gum to the Korean children.

In 1948, at the age of 18, Shim had represented South Korea in the London Olympics. He ran in the 5,000 and 10,000-meter events. It was the first time that Korea had participated in the Olympics. He had studied English at the University of Seoul and was now an interpreter with the U.S. Marines. He spoke broken English and that very poorly.

Actually Shim spoke and understood Japanese better than he did Korean.

Soon he started speaking better and I learned to hear and understand his accent.

I would end up being the interpreter for our interpreter.

About this time the 7th Marines were brought back in support for training in amphibious landings and night assaults. Not until years later did I learn that the Washington politicians prevented General Van Fleet from mounting a summer attack against the Communist Chinese Forces. In hindsight I feel that the 7th Marines were being prepared to have an active part in General Van Fleet’s plans. But when he was not given enough ammo to mount an attack, the 7th Marines were sent back up on the line to help out where needed.

While we were out on a night problem, there was a misty rain falling. It was so slight that it felt like you were walking through a cloud.  The Company assaulted some “enemy” positions; it was hard and tiring work. At a ten-minute break during the exercise my friend Shim offered me a drink from his canteen. I gladly accepted. Although I was wet from the rain my throat was dry and parched. I put the canteen to my lips and tilted my head back for a nice long drink. I choked and gagged on my first swallow. It was then that I learned that Shim had filled his canteen with sake. What a surprise when you are expecting water. The sake was a cheap milky colored rice wine. I always asked after that if it was water in a canteen that was offered.

During night problems we’d get up at 0430 AM and we wouldn’t secure our night problems until after midnight. Everyone was saying, “I’ll be glad when we get back to the line, so I can get some sleep and rest.” While the training problems were tough and demanding there were some nice features about being in support. There were movies every night that we were not on night problems and the engineers had sandbagged a swimming hole for us down at the river. We even had a USO show — I got to see the Jack Benny show that was touring Korea. He was really okay!

Shim and I were getting to be good friends and slowly but surely I was picking up a little Korean. I’d always wanted to learn a foreign language and I got stuck with Korean, the hardest of them all. I remember only a few words today but while in Korea, I got pretty good with a few phrases. I could make myself understood.

Baker Company was on patrol. I was carrying the radio set and acting as a relay from the forward elements of the patrol, which are about 1,500 yards in front of our O.P. (Observation Post).

We were on top of hill 860, which was the highest one around the area. Our patrol had to have us to relay their radio messages over the mountains to the artillery fire control in the valley to the south of our positions. You could really look out and see the country from hill 860. We had an observation plane working with us. The enemy was trying to set up a defense line in front of our line but our 8-inch artillery didn’t give them a chance.

We had a good defense line set up where we were now. We had good positions made with sandbags. We were calling in artillery on two poor gooks that the patrol saw in the valley. Soon a runner from a ROK (Republic of Korea) unit on our flank came running up the trail. He was very excited and out of breathe when he was brought to the O.P. The Executive Officer, First Lieutenant Smith was in command. Shim talked to the runner and started talking to Lt. Smith in broken English, which Smith couldn’t understand. Smith, from Atlanta, Georgia, turned to me and asked in his thick southern drawl “Hopkins what the hell did he say?” I was able to get Shim to slow down his speaking so I could understand him. I became the interpreter for our interpreter.

“We are shelling their patrol,” I reported to Lt. Smith.

“Oh is that all. Tell them to cease fire,” he ordered.

It was surprising what a nice dry home you can make out of a canvas shelter-half. But when it really started raining the rice paddy our company was camping in turned into one of the nicest lakes in Korea. The land in the rice paddies was flat. It was impossible to ditch and drain the paddies and keep your tent floor dry. When the monsoon rains hit you would get 2 or 3 inches of actual rainfall at a time. They were regular cloudbursts and they would last for 2 to 4 days at a time, sometimes more. It was not unusual to have 3 or 4 inches of water on the deck of your tent.

It was nearly impossible to sleep and get any rest when your tent was pitched in a lake. Every item that you had was wet. And there was no place to go that was dry. You’d eat your meals standing elbow to elbow with other wet men in a double squad tent. To help get your hips off the ground we’d try to sleep on our pack frames. Believe me a 30-inch cot is not easy to sleep on. Your feet were wet and wrinkled when you put on your clean but wet socks.

Shim and I, along with another runner, decided that we would go over to a small Korean village, about a mile away, to see if we could get some clothes dried out. It was mid afternoon as we approached the village. We would let Shim be our spokesman. He strutted up to the village in his U.S. Marines uniform with us alongside. He asked to speak to the village head and started telling them about our need to get our clothes dried out. I couldn’t follow everything that Shim told them but in a very short time we were to receive VIP treatment.

We returned to camp and picked up our dirty and wet clothing, as well as our sleeping bags. We returned to find that we had a dry room all to ourselves. We stripped down to our skivvies and gave them and our other dirty clothes to our host. We then spread out our sleeping bags. So we could lie down and get a dry night’s sleep.

In the morning our host awakened us. There were our clothes washed and ironed, and neatly folded in separate piles for each of us. We dressed and headed back to the battalion. At breakfast and roll call everyone was envious of our clean and dry clothes. We stayed at the village for three or four nights. Then the Word came down that all personnel must stay in the camp at nighttime.

Shim paid our Korean host a few hundred yen, which was only a couple of U.S. dollars. I went to visit my friend Sgt. Max Eggman at Battalion Special Services. I scrounged up a box that I filled with cigarettes, chewing tobacco, soap, and razor blades. I returned with my gift and thanked our Korean host. Shim gave me a lecture about over paying and how that would create more inflation in the Korean wartime economy.

I was later transferred from Baker Co. I became jeep driver for the Executive Officer of the Seventh Marine Regiment and I lost track of Shim. Shim and I had exchanged mailing addresses. After my tour of duty in Korea, I returned to Brigham Young University (BYU) at Provo, Utah to continue my education. One day I received a letter from Shim. He expressed a desire to attend school in the United States. In an exchange of letters I told him that I would see if I could get him info on going to school at BYU. Since Shim had limited finances available, I tried to get him a foreign student scholarship.   I had absolutely no luck getting help for Shim.

While filling out papers with the U.S. State Dept., I learned that I did not qualify as a sponsor for a foreign student. It seems that since I was a student on the GI Bill, my income did not qualify me to be a sponsor.

During the summer of 1954, I had this idea about Shim being a distance runner. I asked Shim to send me a letter from the Korean Amateur Athletic Association (KAAA) listing his times in the 1,500 and 5,000-meter competition. When I received the letter from the KAAA; I headed to the Field House to get an appointment with the track coach, Clarence Robison. My timing was very good and the coach was free. I told him about how I met Shim while I was in Korea, and that Shim was an Olympian in the 1948 London Olympics. Coach Robison had been on the USA Olympic team in the 1948 London Olympics. He had competed in the 5,000 and 10,000 miters events. Shim had competed in the same events in London.

I told the coach that I had been unsuccessful in obtaining a “Foreign Student Scholarship.”

I asked the coach if athletic scholarships were available? I shoved the KAAA letter across the coach’s desk. While he read the letter, I continued to tell of Shim’s lack of funds and the need for a sponsor for the U.S. State Dept. I could see the coach mentally transposing Shim’s metric times into U.S distances. He said,  “Let’s go talk with Eddie Kimball, the Director of Athletics.”

Well before we left Eddie Kimball’s office, Shim Bok Sukk had a full Athletic Scholarship complete with room and board. He also had a job to work on campus.

And a member of the “Downtown Coaches Club” was to serve as Shim’s Sponsor at the U.S. State Dept. Shim and his sister, Shim Bok In, were preparing to send Shim 5,000 miles across the sea to attend school at BYU in a Provo, Utah, USA.

While this was happening to Shim, I was busy working at US Steel Corp. I had been hired as a chemist in a special air pollution laboratory that was operated for U.S. Steel by Stanford Research Institute. I was also preparing to marry.

Shim enrolled at BYU in September 1954.  Joanne and I married and I enrolled at BYU. Shim fit into his new environment very well. He made friends everywhere on and off campus. He was a favorite on the track team and in the Athletic Dept.

One year Shim was able to enter and run in the Boston Marathon. While training for the marathon, he would run each evening from Provo to Springville and back to Provo, a distance of about 12 miles. Drivers would stop and offer him a ride. He would thank them and explain that he was training for the marathon. Soon Shim was a familiar sight along the road, and the regular drivers would give Shim a honk of their horn and a wave to greet him in his training.

After graduation Shim married a girl he had met at BYU. She was from Hawaii and was of Japanese ancestry.   After they were graduated they moved to Hawaii. They had a son.

Joanne and I would exchange Christmas Cards. And then all of a sudden Shim’s cards stopped coming. Then 20 some years later, after Joanne and I returned from teaching in Western Samoa about 1994, I stopped by the Alumni Office on the campus of BYU.

I asked them if they had an address for Shim Bok Sukk. They gave me Shim’s address and phone number in Carson, California.

I called and made contact with Shim. We were able to catch up on the news. Shim and his first wife had divorced. I figure that the root of the problem was Shim ran the family under the old Korean patriarchal system. His wife was a westernized educated and strong-willed woman and that was probably the cause of conflict.  Shim seemed bitter about the divorce.

But after several years he had met and married a Korean woman. She was very nice.

I learned that in 1988 Shim was selected as the person to light the Olympic Torch at the games in Seoul, Korea.

For several years we would take time to visit with the Shim’s each time we were in SoCal. They also came to visit with us in Pioneer, California a couple of times. They seemed to enjoy our mountain home.   In the summer of 1997, I told Shim that we would not be able to visit him. We would be busy with a Wright Cousin Family Reunion. He sounded so disappointed that I invited Shim and his wife to join us at the reunion over the 4th of July weekend. The reunion was to be held at the home of our niece and nephew, Jonelle and Chuck Allen, in Perris, CA. They live on a five-acre ranch in Riverside County. About 45 people showed up, including children.

Shim is 5 foot 6 inches and slim with black hair and Asian features. It was fun to see all of the Wright Cousins calling Shim “Uncle Shim.” The Wright Cousins are of Northern European stock with blond and red-headed children. Shim seemed to enjoy being “Uncle Shim.”

A. Norman Hopkins lives in Pioneer, California.

 To read our Tales of Adventure Contest winners’ stories, see the Winter 2014 issue
of Friends and Neighbors Magazine, available at these locations and by subscription.


By Guest Contributor December 7, 2014 01:42
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