Camp Page in Chun Cheon Korea was the perfect place to pop my cherry. For six months, I’ve been training to be a sniper and now I’m finally getting my first assignment. It was a Saturday morning in 1953, when Major Bak called me into his office. “Here is a permanent pass for you. It will get you in and out of the front gate anytime, night or day. Now I want you to meet your partners. When you go out the gate, go straight ahead to the top of the hill. There, you will see several stores on the right on Myong Dong Road. Go there and find the barber shop. When you go inside, ask for John.”
“You’re not coming with me?” I asked.
“I am sorry, Corporal Ellis, but I cannot come with you. I am very well known around here. If I am seen going into that barber shop, I risk having all the informants from there being captured. Your file said you can speak Korean, so you should have no problem asking someone for directions. Isn’t that true?”
All I could do was stare at him. Here I was, in the middle of a foreign country, with no way of determining the difference between friend or foe. As I looked out the window facing the road up the hill, I knew I had no choice. “I guess if someone asks who I am, I could tell them I’m a reporter for Life Magazine, major Bak.”
Major Bak laughed. “I doubt if they will ask you anything, except for money or cigarettes. Hell, a pack of Lucky Strikes will buy you a personal guide to the barbershop.”
Rising from his chair, he joined me at the window, and replied, “The weather looks good today. You better take advantage of it while you can.”
My time for procrastination had come to an end. After saying my farewells, I left the building and began my journey up the hill. Before I knew it, I was walking down Myong Dong Road and found the sign saying Yi Bal So (Barbershop). As I went inside, I was greeted with cigarette smoke filled room with a man getting a haircut and two others talking to the barber. But when they saw me come in, they went silent. “Naneun jon-eul chajgo issseubnida (I am looking for John),” I said. The two men who were talking to the barber looked at each other and walked out the door. The barber quickly finished with his customer, and he ran out as well. Now it was just the barber and me.
“So,” he said. “You the big FBI man, huh?” He eyed me from top to bottom. “You no look like much. You think you can kill the big honchos up north?”
It was my turn to look at John from top to bottom. I didn’t see much that differentiate from any other Korean, except for the cold, calculating look in his eyes. “Who says I’m from the FBI?”
John began to laugh. “No secrets here. Everyone talks. I listen. You join Army, you shoot good. FBI hears this and recruits you. Here you are today. So, big FBI man wants to play soldier. Good. I hope you can kill those soldier men. All number ten.” As he looked outside to make sure no one was watching or listening, he whispered, “Come back tomorrow morning. 5 a.m. You go on fishing boat up Han River. Go north and kill number ten soldiers. Dangsin-eun ihae? (You understand?)”
He bowed to me. “Good-bye FBI man. See you tomorrow.”
After returning his bow, I went back to Camp Page, wondering, how did my story come to light?
After returning to Camp Page, I reported to Major Bak and told him what happened and when I finished, he asked only one question.
“Do you have everything you need?”
I thought about the rifle, scope, and everything I needed to carry in my backpack. I knew the mountainous terrain would be difficult to traverse, even without carrying a load. But this is what I trained for. “Yes sir,” I told him. “I have enough supplies to last for three days. With a little luck, I’ll be back before then.”
“Very well, Mr. Ellis. Get some rest. You may not get much until you return.”
When I returned to the barracks, I tried to get as much rest as possible, but my sleep was restless. As I laid in bed, all I could think about was my first mission and my first target, but one question overwhelmed all else. What happens to me when this is over?
As the sun began to rise from the east, I found myself huddled in the hull of a river fishing boat. The door above me was slightly ajar, permitting a beam of light to enter. A slight odor of gasoline filled the air and even though the hull was empty, it was overpowered by the stench of rotten fish. The smell made me feel nauseous, but I knew I was banned from going up on deck. If the North Koreans spotted my big nose or round eyes, we would all be shot on sight. With little choice in the matter, I did my best to ignore the smell and stayed below. My only hope was knowing I could be allowed on deck after sunset.
So, when midafternoon hit, I was surprised to see the crewmen signaling for me to come up. “Everything, you bring,” one of them whispered. “Balli (Quickly).” I grabbed my gear and headed up to greet the sunshine and fresh air. I felt like I was just released from thirty days of solitary confinement.
Another of the crewmen was on shore signaling for me to follow him. This is it, I thought. the crewman grabbed my scope bag and began to guide me through a mountain pass.
The crewman spoke to me in simple Korean. “Maybe two kilometers, camp ahead. Big honchos there. You kill the general. Understand?”
“Ye,” I replied.
The crewman and I went up the path, then turned off into a wooded area. Ten minutes later, we came to the edge of a clearing. From there I could see an encampment in the near distance. The crewman pointed at the camp. “Geugos-e (There).”
It was still light out and decided I didn’t need the scope. Taking out my binoculars, I began to search for a general. With all the men standing around him, it didn’t take long to find him. I leaned up against a tree and took aim. I was about to fire, when I saw another general come out of a tent, joining the first general.
The crewman grew agitated and whispered, “Balli, FBI man.”
But the line of sight wasn’t perfect. I waited as the two generals pivoted around each other. I took a deep breath and continued to wait. Then it happened. Both generals were lined up in my sight. As I squeezed the trigger, the bullet exploded from the rifle, and a moment later, both generals dropped dead from a single shot. Grabbing my backpack, I ran as fast as I could to the boat. Fortunately, the crewman was three steps ahead of me, leading our way back to safety.
Occasionally, I would glance back and see if anyone was following us. Though I saw no one following, I wasn’t tempted to slow down. We jumped back on the deck of the boat and the crew man pointed at the cargo hold. “Jump. Balli.” He tossed the scope bag into the hold, and when it hit bottom, the sound of the lenses shattering pierced the surrounding silence.
That’s it, I thought. All my future missions will have to be completed in daylight hours. Then I smiled to myself when I realized I wouldn’t have to carry that bag wherever I went. I hopped in the hold and did a quick inspection of the scope. When I opened the bag, I saw it was hopeless. The front lens was separated from the scope and was shattered into several pieces. I closed the bag up and threw it in the corner. No sense worrying about it. Then I heard the boat engine come to life and felt us moving again.
I looked up and saw a crewman peering down at me. “How soon before we get back?” I asked.
He smiled at me and showed me three fingers. “Three days, FBI man.”
I could believe what I heard. “Three days? Why so long?”
He waved his arm at the cargo hold. “No fish, here. Now we fish. Empty boat, no good. Look bad. Fish, one. Go home, two.”
At that moment, I realized he was right. If we went back to Chun Cheon without a catch, suspicious eyes would turn our way. I looked at my surroundings and a question came to me. “If fish go here, where do I go?”
The crewman began to laugh. “No go. You stay here. Fish stink. You stink. Same, same.”
If I hadn’t spent most of my life not swearing, I would have said something that would have even made a prostitute blush. But I didn’t. Instead, I closed my mouth and prepared myself for the worst. I wasn’t sure how many fish they could catch in three days, but I was sure it would be far more than I wished for.
Three hours later, my hell began. I heard the crew groaning, as they dragged the fishing net to the deck of the boat. Moments later, the load was dropped in the cargo hold and I was surrounded by fish flopping around. It wasn’t long after, they took their last gasp of air and ceased to move. I pushed them as far away as I could with my foot, knowing it was only the beginning. The smell wasn’t overpowering, but I knew that would change by the next day.
At sunset, I was greeted by another load of fish and as before I pushed them off to the side. A crewman peered down to check on me. “Fishing finished today. Eat time. Rice, fish, kimchee (spicy pickled cabbage), makgeolli (rice wine).” He signaled for me to come on the deck. I was more than happy to oblige. The sun had set, and the stars were coming out in the cloudless sky. I sat with the others, as we shared a meal. They talked among themselves about fishing, their children’s accomplishments, and their nagging wives. Not one word was whispered about what transpired today. There was no wind and the sound of them talking would carry across the water
I sat there quietly, thankful not to be sitting next to the fish. Later, when the makgeolli warmed up everyone’s spirits, they began to sing cultural songs. They continued to sing, until the last man fell asleep. As I laid on the deck, ready to join them in their slumber, a chill ran into the air making it impossible for me to sleep, forcing me to face my inner demons. During my training in the FBI, I was constantly reminded how killing someone in cold blood could affect my life. Nightmares would be my closest companions. Depression was sure to follow. I was promised I would be seen by world renown doctors to get me through this trauma. But as I laid there, only one thing ran through my mind. It was the thrill of the hunt and how I hungered for more. Before I fell asleep, I knew my dreams would be pleasant, recognizing the fear in the hunted’s eyes. Before, I was bound by the unknowing, but now I know and am eager for my next mission. My mind was at peace, and I closed my eyes with the echoing of rifle fire dancing in my head.
It seemed like only a moment had passed when someone shook me awake. Seeing the stars were fading in the pre-dawn light, I knew dawn was coming.
The crewman who woke me pointed at the hold and said, “Go.”
Instead of arguing, I went back to join the fish and pushed them away from my corner. By the time we returned to Chun Cheon, I came to realize those three days were the most miserable and wonderful of my life.