It was Christmas Eve, 1954 when Vince Kiernan arrived in South Korea on Paengnyong Island which is about 200 kilometers Northwest of Inchon in the Yellow Sea. The island bordered the famous 38th parallel and they could see communist North Korea with mainland China less than 300 kilometers to the North. Needless to say, their geographic position was tenuous at best should hostilities resume.
The Korean conflict had taken a breather after three years of fighting and peace talks were going on at Panmunjom. History had shown the Korean peninsula to be a battleground for Asian struggles. World War II ended thirty-five years of Japanese control and brought Soviet Forces north of the 38th parallel; US forces to the south.
In 1948, the northern area became the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and in the South, The Republic of Korea.
Life for Vince Kiernan moved fast after finishing his education. He had a nice position as an outside sales and marketing representative working in the New York City/Manhattan area. He was enjoying the good life. Because of his status he was drafted and shipped to Fort Dix, New Jersey for basic training. During his evaluation period he was singled out and moved to a ‘Security school’ where he had armed US Marine guards posted outside their classrooms and patrolling the grounds. “Somehow we were supposed to feel special that we were chosen for this program,” Vince said. “It was actually more work and long hours of study followed by exams that whittled the group down from 28 to 13! The incentive for sticking through it was supposed to be a cushy assignment in Germany, Turkey or other interesting countries.” But upon graduation, he drew Korea and that is how it began.
Afterintroduction at PyDo to all of the other twenty two members of the team, he became aware that there were just twelve who had gone through the same training and the others were there as support. They worked three shifts, eight hours each, two men to a ‘trick’, six days per week, pulled guard duty and did all the things necessary to survive as a group in a small barbed wire compound.
Looking back, Vince credits the military for its ability to put such a group together. They were all so different, with varied backgrounds, but the skill and education they brought with them was precisely correct to do the assigned mission.
As the months passed, they fought weather, the bitter cold, the brutal summer heat, the flies, the equipment that didn’t work, and the outside support that didn’t arrive on time. “Even with all the grumbling and complaining, everyone pitched in without exception.” Vince recollects. “The support group was all regular army. Our cook could make something out of nothing; the electronics man could always figure another way to make it work, as would the motor pool mechanic who kept our vehicles running. Life in the team was occasionally exciting but for the most part we did our jobs, wrote lots of letters, played Pinochle and volleyball and completed correspondence courses through the United States Armed Forces.” They also became familiar with the island.
The island was formed by volcanic eruptions five thousand years earlier, its peaks pressed 1,500 feet into the sky. It was an area of 5 X 8 miles with several large bays that drained with the tide, creating what the soldiers called ‘mud flats’. There were seven beaches covered with fist-sized round rocks and one beach which the soldiers referred toas Pea Rocks beach because of its gravel.
Entry and exit from the island was a street wide two-mile stretch of sandy beach where the Royal Hellenic Air Force would land and take off as if it were a concrete runway. An LST would arrive at the beach every two months to exchange heavy equipment and supplies.
Vince recalls there were less than 900 inhabitants on the island and they got to know and respect their ability to keep smiling while living in such poverty. “We helped with every possible turn and they reacted with a boundless joy like that of the children.”
The island was pristine, unmarked by the war, but all the trees and even the bushes had been cut down and burned by the locals for cooking and for warmth. The roads were rough dirt, but clear of trash as were the beaches. The residents lived off the land with small gardens and rice paddies dotting the landscape. There were no gas engines except for ours. It was unspoiled and natural, no clutter except for what the military brought ashore. Vince wondered why he was spending a good portion of his life there. What did we gain?
That thought kept coming back to him for the next forty years since returning home, raising a family and devoting his career to growing an international business as a means of helping other countries. Traveling all over the world he had opportunities to visit Korea, but his little island was off limits and he could not gain access.
In 1972 the last Americans left the island and the Republic of Korea was put in control under the Province of Inchon and the Korean Army started substantial infrastructure development projects. During July 1997,they partially opened access to the islandunder strict security conditions. Vince immediately contacted his Korean business agents and together they arranged to spend the weekend on the island in October 1998.
“To our surprise we left Inchon aboard a 120-foot high speed pontoon ferry boat complete with large screen televisions on both decks. Upon arrival they passed through inspection and met their tour guide who had arranged for a reasonably comfortable hotel near the west side of the island. The guide told Vince he was the first American to visit the island since 1972. Vince said, “They were very proud to show us what they had accomplished and by comparison and observation, it was a lot!”
Dikes had been installed on the mud flats increasing its farming area by 4,000%. The population had quadrupled to more than 4,000. A motorized fishing industry was created and grass and mud homes were replaced by concrete block buildings everywhere. Cars and trucks replaced the oxen. The standard of living was almost equal to the mainland. For twenty years or more, inhabitants celebrated Arbor Day and everyone was required to plant a tree. The trees had come back and covered the mountain. The water was clean and pure. Children went to school and 80% of the island went to church. Employment was 100%! They were a free people. Communism did not win!
“During dinner that evening, our guide told the hotel staff (in Korean) of my involvement with the island between 1954-1956. The next morning we were heading to the boat to leave when a middle-aged lady who operated the hotel came out, teary-eyed. She put her arms around me and gave me a big hug. It turns out she was one of the small children who remembered the Americans,” Vince continued. “Now I know why I returned to Paengnyong-Do. I had closure!”