| Historical Committee
By Rachel Waltner
Skirts: An Army Medic’s Account of the Korean War and After. By
Richard Waltner. San Jose: Authors Choice Press. 2000.
into a career as a
professor of sociology at Montana State University. During the 1990s,
in retirement, Waltner began to recall and write about his experiences
as a young man in Korea. The task was made easier by the existence of
more than 460 letters he had written to his sweetheart and future wife,
Bonnie—one letter for each day of his overseas assignment. In the
book’s opening pages, Waltner tells of the letters’ significance
throughout his military experience, and as a personal archive which
formed the core of his book-writing project: “It was Bonnie who gave me
promise that there was life beyond Korea … [a]nd … who faithfully kept
every letter I wrote her. … I was never too tired to write her a daily
letter telling her of the day’s events. I thought I remembered most of
what I experienced in Korea; however; re-reading those letters written
some 47 years ago revealed to me just how much I had forgotten …. Those
letters transported me back” (pp. 8, 10).
|Richard Waltner’s memoir, recounting his service as a U.S.
during and immediately after the Korean War, helps to fill a gap in
20th century Mennonite wartime literature. While the experiences of
conscientious objectors who pursued alternative service through I-W
assignments and the Pax program are well-documented, less familiar are
stories from men classified as 1-A-O (noncombatant) or 1-A (combatant)
service. Waltner, who was drafted in 1952, went through basic army
training and was assigned to work in the 120th Medical Battalion, 45th
Infantry Division. His is a deeply personal portrayal of the quest for
dignity in the dehumanizing context of army life.
Raised in a
Mennonite family in Freeman, South Dakota, Waltner had
attended college for two years before going off to Korea. His keen
interest in observing social and institutional behavior—a pronounced
focus of this memoir—would eventually lead him
The book’s title, Men in Skirts, evokes Waltner’s disdain for military
leaders who treated rank-and-file soldiers as subordinates who were
unintelligent, inferior, and unworthy of respect. Waltner argues that
in the broader American culture of the early 1950s, women were
generally regarded as inferior to men; so, too, power imbalances
characterized military life in Korea, where career officials often
regarded drafted men as flunkies, and treated them accordingly. Waltner
acknowledges that in more recent decades, U.S. military culture may
have changed for the better, but asserts that his characterizations
reflect a deeply troubling organization in which he participated fifty
Waltner’s criticisms extend not only to American military incompetence
toward its own soldiers. He also describes the military as heavy-handed
among South Korean civilians, especially children and prostitutes. In
one instance, Waltner recounts his horror early upon arriving at
Yongdung P’o, near Seoul, where young children hung around the American
military compound to scavenge for food from the officers’ garbage cans.
As Waltner observed military police jumping from their jeeps and
shooting in the direction of the children, he was appalled: “Is this
why I was sent to Korea, to watch American G.I.s shooting at children?
… I was angry. At that moment, I felt chagrined to be wearing the
American uniform. I needed an explanation and I needed clarification,
which, of course, I never got” (pp. 25-26).
For the next fifteen months, Waltner would serve as a medic, along with
other men classified as I-A-O (noncombatants), and with doctors
similarly assigned to the 120th Medical Battalion. Most of the
physicians with whom he worked attained his respect; many were draftees
who quickly adapted their medical training to the peculiarities of the
war zone. Their lifesaving efforts impressed Waltner, even as he
observed mistakes and instances of fallibility in handling patients.
Occasionally, the dedication and compassion of his colleagues were
transformative, as in a chapter where Waltner describes the fate of a
gravely wounded lieutenant, clinging to life, for whom surgery, prayer,
and the extraordinary teamwork of the emergency room staff resulted in
When the end of the war came on July 27, 1953, Waltner celebrated his
22nd birthday with the hope that he would quickly be able to travel
home and reunite with Bonnie. For nearly 12 more months, however, as
the United States continued to occupy Korea, he would remain with his
medical unit, waiting for demobilization orders. He was perplexed by a
bureaucracy that denied him a transfer out of Korea when he felt he
should have been released on account of a medical condition, Raynaud’s
disease. In these latter months of service, Waltner’s disdain for
military life intensified. There were many reasons for his anxiousness
to put the Korean War experience behind him, including an incident
shortly before Christmas 1953 when, as a medic, he had to deal with the
bodies of four American G.I.s felled by “friendly fire.”
Throughout the book, Waltner does not suggest that he might have
preferred alternative service; nor does he self-identify as a
conscientious objector. While he credits his upbringing—especially his
South Dakota mother’s advice, “Don’t ever forget you are a child of
God, and as such you are a person of great worth” (p. 18)—as carrying
him through adversity, he scarcely hints at his Mennonite roots or at
church teachings that would have denounced war.
Yet he came to abhor war and the byproducts of waging it. Waltner’s
experiences as an army medic convinced him that the military’s
dehumanizing of its personnel had to be fought as a daily struggle.
Eventually, he wrote Bonnie that “the Army is the most dictatorial,
totalitarian institution I have ever encountered and ever hope to
encounter” (p. 173).
A half-century later, Waltner laments the deaths caused by the war,
especially those of fellow soldiers whom he learned to know. And he
laments the loss of tradition and the disruption in the lives of the
Koreans, whom he found to be patient and long-suffering. He wonders why
so many Americans over the past 50 years have let memories of the
Korean War slip into oblivion—in his view, a shameful misuse of
history, when there are lessons to be learned from it. Thanks to
Waltner’s letters and remembrances, we have more reason than ever to
give the Korean War, in Mennonite experience and beyond, due
Waltner Goossen teaches history at Washburn University, Topeka, Kansas.
"God calls us to preserve our faith heritage, to interpret our stories,
and to proclaim God's work among us."