I don't plan on spending any time at a major city landfill or touring a
metropolitan sewer system, but if I did, I couldn't possibly find a rat
population larger than the one I encountered as a U.S. Marine in the Land of
the Morning Calm, 1952-53. It is my considered opinion that at that
particular point in time, the only things that outnumbered the Chinese in
Korea were the rats.
On line they could be seen in the bunkers as they scuttled along the
ceilings between the bottom row of sandbags and the supporting timbers. I
recall one bunker where our makeshift bunks were arranged in an "L" shape.
My buddy Joey and I slept on the lower tier with our feet at the
intersection of the two legs of the L. At the top of the vertical leg of the
L, where my head would be, was a table we had made from ammo boxes. At some
point during the first couple of days in that bunker, I for some reason
opened my eyes and looked up. I found my gaze being returned by six or eight
beady little eyes less than a foot away. After that I slept with my feet
closest to the table and relied on Joey’s feet to deter visitors to the end
where my head was.
In reserve it was the same, the rats were everywhere and in great numbers.
Other than our packs we had no storage, so anything a person wanted to keep
or store went under the cot. The rats quickly figured out that was the place
to be. We had two men bitten by rats in one reserve period and both were
immediately evacuated to Japan. One trooper reached under his rack for
something and was bitten on the wrist. The other poor devil was unaware that
as he slept a rat had nestled under his chin to take advantage of the warmth
of his breath. When the guy rolled over and startled the rat it bit him on
the upper lip. After a period of adjustment that went through fear and
revulsion and finally ended in hatred, we all learned to live with these
little bastards—but never on friendly terms.
Some guys, like my friend the Greek, had very specific means for dealing
with the enemy rodents. On a visit to the 81mm mortar site where he was
stationed, I stopped at a gun pit and asked a couple of mortar men if they
could point out the Greek’s bunker. They showed me where it was but advised
caution if I intended to enter. As I approached I could hear what could only
be gunshots coming from within. I paused and announced myself at the
entryway and was rewarded with a “Come on in!” Inside the Greek was lying on
his back with one hand across his chest holding a .45 automatic. He had been
shooting at rats as they scurried along between the timbers that formed the
support for the roof of the bunker.
The memory that best recalls just how significant the rodent population was
occurred one day just after we had come off line. We were establishing a new
reserve camp on the reverse slope of a hill. I have long since forgotten the
name given to this camp but I know it was named after a second lieutenant
who was KIA. The engineers had been there before we arrived and had terraced
off the slope into shelves where we would be erecting squad tents.
Someone in the battalion decided that an attempt would be made to drive out
the rats before we erected the tents. The companies were arranged in
skirmish lines about twenty yards apart and facing uphill. Each man had an
entrenching tool. The flamethrower guys from weapons company were sent up to
the military crest facing downhill. On signal the flamethrowers began
spraying the down slope while slowly advancing toward the deployed skirmish
lines. What had a moment before appeared to be a lifeless hill suddenly
became a writhing, squealing mass of motion.
We have all seen western movies where the cattle or buffalo herd runs off in
a panic without a destination in mind, but intent on getting somewhere else.
That’s what we at the lower levels saw coming, but instead of cattle or
buffalo, this was a stampede of rats. As the tide flowed between and around
our feet each man was bent at the waist and was swinging his entrenching
tool as fast and as hard as he could. It was impossible to miss and every
swing killed one or more of the herd.
Eventually the flamethrowers passed thru the last skirmish line and the
surviving rats crossed a road and disappeared into the brush. The Korean
Service Corps was put to work cleaning up the carcasses, which were dumped
into a pit and burned again before being covered. We began unloading canvas
and poles to erect the camp. The tents went up and we were moved in before
dark; after dark the rats moved in.
Dave Easton is the author of
Leatherneck Sea Stories: Recollections of Marines, Korea, and the Corps of
the 1950s (Canopic Publishing, 2007)