Review of One Year There: A Soldier’s Year in South Korea in 1968 by Robert Denis Holewinski

Review of One Year There: A Soldier’s Year in South Korea in 1968 by Robert Denis Holewinski

I met Bob Holewinski at my fortieth high school reunion in 2010; he’s married to my former classmate. When Deb mentioned on Facebook that he’d written a book about his year serving in Korea during the Vietnam era, I bought the Kindle edition. Like Holewinski, my husband also served in Korea (for thirteen months, starting in January 1969). That connection piqued my curiousity about Holewinski’s experience.

Two years passed before I even looked at the book. Why? Because it’s written in free verse. I procrastinated reading the poetic military memoir because I expected it to be an epic like the Iliad, which I suffered through in high school, and remember nothing about. So, I saved it for some undefined future date.

In the meantime, Deb shared on Facebook that Bob had written another book, and a few months ago, mentioned he is a talented artist. I checked out his paintings on the websites that sell them, and they so impressed me that I shared them on ARHtistic License.

Then, I felt guilty that I’d never read Holewinski’s book, and decided to tackle it.

The good news is, it’s a much quicker read than the Iliad (I finished it in two days), and for me, much more engaging.

One Year There

Holewinski says he wrote the book to “purge the phantoms that have been dwelling inside me since living ‘One Year There.’” As it turns out, poetry is the perfect medium for his story. With its lack of paragraphs, punctuation, and capital letters, the poems peel away any artificial barriers that might separate the reader from the raw tension and emotion pouring from Holewinski’s words (my apologies–I don’t know enough coding to make WordPress match the author’s indents):

i run up the long hill
to a dark and damp bunker
half sunk down in the ground
half built up with sandbag walls

covered with a plywood and sandbag roof
there I charge through the narrow entrance
breathing fast heart hard pounding
looking out through the slit openings
with dripping moisture the bunker smells
of oiled canvas damp earth and i wait
come on
come on
where is everyone already

Stationed at a nuclear missile base in South Korea, a high-priority target of the North Koreans, Holewinski lived with danger unimagined by average citizens stateside, who watched coverage of the Vietnam war on the nightly news. Only the worst Korean incidents garnered any press, such as the capture on January 23, 1968, of the USS Pueblo by the North Koreans. After eleven months of negotiations and a public apology by the United States government, the eighty-three crew members were finally released from their detainment.

When Holewinski’s unit was in training, being prepared for their assigned duty in Vietnam (and being cautioned that they would probably not be coming home alive), the Pueblo’s capture altered their orders to serve in Korea, but the risk of dying in action remained high.

In One Year There: A Soldier’s Year in South Korea in 1968, Holewinski records his memories about the countryside, the locals, and his fellow soldiers. Spoiler alert: if you don’t want some story details, skip these bulletin points:

  • While his unit fills sandbags in an attempt to contain a flooding river, a drunk sergeant falls into the rushing waters. Though clinging to floating debris, when he slams into a log jam at the bridge, he loses his grip and is pulled under the surface. His body is never found.
  • The mayor of Hasangoni, where the military base is located, negotiates deals with the officers to enrich himself and possibly benefit his villagers.
  • While on emergency bivouac, soldiers dressed in their winter gear observe an old papa-san wading through an icy river carrying his bicycle.
  • A soldier from Florida experiences snow for the first time.
  • A village girl who clears tables in the mess hall falls in love with one of the American soldiers. When his tour is over, he returns stateside without even saying goodbye.
  • The murder of Martin Luther King causes a rift between the Black and white soldiers.
  • A busload of Korean orphans visits the camp, accompanied by the nuns who care for them. The children, wearing traditional costumes, sing folk songs and perform ethnic dances for the troops. Then they are treated to a full meal in the mess hall, with the soldiers waiting on them. After that, the kids hunt for Easter candy and receive gifts of clothing, books, and games. This is one of the highlights of Holewinski’s tour.
  • A soldier who’d returned home re-enlists (because he can’t find civilian work back home), and is shunned by the draftees.
  • An imminent attack sparks an evacuation of the camp—including its nine nuclear warheads.
  • A soldier purposely breaks his hand, hoping to get sent home with a medical discharge. Instead, he’s treated in the infirmary.

Robert Holewinski Self-Portrait

In some places, the line breaks seemed wonky to me. I don’t know if it was deliberate on the author’s part, or if the formatting was distorted from viewing it in a large font on my Kindle. (What I use so I don’t have to put on my reading glasses.)

Holewinski successfully captures the tension, danger, and despair endured by military in a combat zone. His poetry flows economically, with the emotion coming through without wordy explanation. As someone who has never experienced military life, I found it illuminating. I suspect that One Year There would especially resonate with anyone in the armed forces.

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