The ROKs; Republic of Korea Soldiers in Vietnam

 

  President Johnson did not want the war to broaden. He wanted the North Vietnamese to leave their brothers in the south alone.

~William Westmoreland

 

 

                               Recruited Allies

ROKs preparing for action.

Many American GI’s who served in Vietnam had contact of one kind or another with troops from South Korea, commonly referred to as the “ROKs”. The Republic of Korea, a staunch ally of the U.S., sent some 335,000 troops to fight in South Vietnam from 1965 to 1973. Of those 335,000 troops some 5,500 were killed in action, while over 11,000 were wounded. Though the South Korean Army contributed most of those troops, members of South Korea’s Marines, Air Force and Navy also participated in the war.

Johnson desperately needed support for the war.

As one of the participants of Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Many Flags” campaign, South Korea became the largest foreign presence in Vietnam, after the United States.

 

                                Controversies Arise

The South Korean government was not anxious to send troops to Vietnam but did so for economic reasons, and more importantly, because it feared the United States would transfer many of its own troops from South Korea to Vietnam, if they did not comply with Johnson’s request. Even so, South Korea was granted specific sums of money for each South Korean troop deployed to South Vietnam, along with regularly scheduled “general” payments to the South Korean government for the duration of the war. As part of the agreement, the U.S. also agreed to purchase many war materials from South Korea and contracted with South Koreans for many other war related services during the course of the war. These activities prompted many U.S. politicians and citizens to decry the actions as nothing more than the hiring of mercenaries to fight Johnson’s war, as well as shelling out poorly veiled bribes for foreign support.

The ROKs held no sympathy for the enemy.

Other problems arose with the South Vietnamese military who largely detested the Koreans, believing them to be interlopers and bullies.

South Korean Soldiers and Marines, known for their toughness were accused of various atrocities throughout the war, and to this day, the government of Vietnam is still attempting to press charges against the South Koreans for actions that occurred during their time there.

 

 

                   Admiration and Respect, from the U.S. Military

 

The ROKs aided the U.S. military in every way.

Despite the controversies surrounding their participation in the war, the U.S. military held the South Koreans in high regard and U.S. GI’s who served with the ROK’s (me included) hold many favorable memories of them.

The two ROK army divisions that served in Vietnam were the “White Horse Division” and the “Capitol Division”, more commonly known as the “Tiger Division”.

My involvement with the Koreans was with the “Tiger Division” which had two camps just outside the Phu Cat Airbase perimeter.

The Phu Cat perimeter was frequently probed by VC and the NVA.

At Phu Cat, the “Tigers” conducted both passive operations, including defensive positions along our perimeter, as well as aggressive operations including search and destroy patrols in the general area surrounding the Phu Cat Airbase.

As more and more elements of the 173rd Airborne were pulled back during President Nixon’s Vietnamization program, the Phu Cat Airbase assumed more and more responsibility for its own protection. Security police and augmantees (volunteers) patrolled the base perimeter 24 hours a day. The local Vietcong would often probe the perimeter, sending sappers in to inflict damage whenever they could. While Air Force base defenses performed the passive defense very well, they were not trained or equipped to go out on patrols, seeking out Vietcong and North Vietnamese soldiers. The ROKs, on the other hand, performed that task very well.

 

                                    The ROKs and Me

The main ROK compound outside Phu Cat Airbase southern perimeter.

I first became associated with the ROKs when I spent time in their main camp outside of our south perimeter learning the martial art of Tae Kwon Do. Larger and stronger than the Vietnamese, the ROKs were tough, disciplined and extremely dedicated in the application of their practice of karate. Watching them as they trained and sparred we became quite impressed with their physical prowess. Few Americans could match their abilities in hand to hand fighting.

I eventually earned a yellow belt in Tai Kwon Do, but never took it any farther; I was not what you would call a “natural” in that endeavor. Some of my peers became quite enthralled with the martial art, earning various degrees of black belts. They would spend their off duty hours with the Koreans, training and sparring. Our non-com at the time would often chide us over our involvement in the activity. He called us “chimbee artists” after the sound we made when we executed our moves.

When I had about three months left of my tour of duty in Vietnam, I began spending much of my time in the Korean bunker just outside of our Western perimeter. My two best friends whose tours were over had already left Vietnam. With Nixon’s Vietnamization program in full swing, my previous duty station required a skeleton crew only, leaving me a ship without a navy, so to speak. Recruited for other duty, I spent about one month loading and unloading cargo on C-130 and C-47 aircraft. I flew all around the Central Highlands of Vietnam during that time. That was great duty for me; I especially enjoyed my one-week stay at Nha Trang, which had a beautiful beach for swimming and even surfing.

However when my flying days ended, I still had little to do and was pretty much in charge of my own activities. I took my R & R to Hong Kong (much enjoyed) but when I came back, I still had no workstation to report to on a regular basis so I started hanging with my old friends, the ROKs.

The ROK bunker where I spent most of my last two months in-country.

The ROKs on our Western perimeter maintained a small, less than platoon size bunker, and because of my earlier association with them, I now found myself charged with making sure they had everything they needed that our Airbase could provide. (They finally found something for me to do so I’d leave them alone) I felt this was worthy duty and I also enjoyed it.

Each morning I would walk over to the ROK compound just outside of our Western perimeter, and spend most of the day there. The ROK Lieutenant in charge would greet me on arrival after which we would discuss any number of topics. Protocol was important to the ROKs and it was necessary for me to spend whatever time the Lieutenant required, discussing whatever subject he liked. As a recent convert to Christianity, the Lieutenant liked to discuss religion. Being a Luke-warm disciple of religion, my participation in the discussion was based primarily on manners and military protocol.

Kim Jun-Ki and myself

The rest of my day at the Korean compound would be spent in any number of ways at my new duty station. One of the Korean soldiers and I became close friends over time and we were inseparable during my time there. Kim Jun-Ki and I fished and swam in the little river that ran by their compound, and shared family histories as well. He had a sister named Jun-Ja and he hoped to engineer a marriage between us. Another time, another place perhaps, but I wasn’t ready for a marriage based on correspondence, so I held him off on that one. Kim and I kept in contact for several years after we both left Vietnam and after all these years I still think of him often, hoping he prospered and did well in life.

For reasons of self-preservation, the local VC usually spared the ROK compound from the mortar and rocket attacks the airbase was subjected to. During my stay with the Koreans, I recall only one or two mortar attacks and the mortars that fell were well short of our little bunker. It was my opinion that the mortars were intended for the airbase and just fell short.

The ROKs went out on patrol about three or four times a week. They would usually patrol the mountains to the west of our base, known as the Phu Cats. The lieutenant often teased me about going out on patrol with them…at least I thought he was teasing until the day he told me it was time for me to go. Not wanting to lose face, I grabbed my gear and went out on the patrol. Fortunately, for me, it was not one of the long-range patrols up in the Phu Cats, but rather just a short two-hour jaunt outside the airbase perimeter. On this particular mission, our patrol encountered no enemy and my short career as a “grunt” left me unharmed. (God bless the grunts!)

A former ROK soldier, now U.S. citizen at one of my book signings.

Before I left Vietnam, my ROK friends held a celebration on my behalf, including fresh fish from the river, Korean OB 10 beer, and, of course, plenty of kimchee. To this day, I fondly remember all of my days and nights with my Korean friends, I still have a fondness for Kimchee have converted some family members and friends and bring some home now and then.

                                  천만에요   (Welcome)

 

Please share your memories of our staunch allies from South Korea

About the Author

Joe Campolo Jr.

Joe Campolo, Jr. is an award winning author, poet and public speaker. A Vietnam War Veteran, Joe writes and speaks about the war, and is a Veteran's advocate. Some of Joe's stories are gripping, some humorous. Joe also writes about other experiences, many of which are also humorous. Joe enjoys fishing, traveling, writing and spending time with his family. Joe loves to hear from his readers, please send him a note on this page or the contact page! (and order one of Joe's popular books from the link on his author page)

Comments

  1. I served with the ROK in Korea in 67-68.

    Great soldiers.

    While in a field hospital, a North Korean soldier, was in a bed opposite from me guarded by two American MP’s. When he was released by the Americans to South Korea, they hung him soon afterwards. Tough cookies.

    Google “The Second Korean War.”

    1. I was with the Roks from 1968/1969. I was a radio operator with the 54th signal. Seen more then most. alive today because of them.

  2. joe I was an augmentee for 30 days in feb mar 1969 and got to meet many Koreans too. one incident I bought an electric fan for a rok at the bx when I gave him the fan he reimbursed me and next stop arrested by security police spent a couple hours in custody until the capt bailed me out, I would have done it again really appreciated them as I was at phu cat may 1968 to oct 1969 after my extended tour cut a little short due to I went home when my dad died 2 weeks before my 21st birthday

    1. Wow, that’s the Nam, for sure Dan. Glad you came out OK, good hearing from you. Stay in touch.

  3. I supplied the White Horse with batteries and inner tubes from my outside storage yard at Cam Rahn Bay—no paperwork.
    They supplied me with Korean beer—impossible to dent those cans.
    Outstanding convoy escort troops to visit Tiger Division friends outside DaLat and Ban Me Thout. In ambushes, ROKs stopped, ran out, came back with ears and
    fingers.

  4. I never heard of the ROK until I took Tae-Kwon-Do. I found out that the founder (Master Bu Kwang Park) was a Vietnam-era ROK soldier trained directly by General Choi, and he visited each school. I decided to “spar” him as a third degree, and he literally paralyzed my entire body and caused me to slump to the floor in a single punch. I’ve been gored by a 2140 lb hereford bull’s horn before, and it didn’t even feel a tenth as bad as getting punched by him.

    1. I was a ground radio operator detached to 9th ROK, The White Horse Division, 1970-1971 in support of Cutie FACs. Whether at Division or one of the regiments, you could see the parade ground filled each morning with Korean soldiers practicing exercising with their Tae-Kuon-do with all the oomphs, ahs, and grunts that goes with it. I may make light of it, but not of them. I am proud and thankful for my opportunity to serve with great soldiers – and, I thank them for keeping my butt safe whenever I was with them. I was invited to take Tae-Kwon-Do, but stupidly (in handsight) I chose women, booze, and partying for my spare time…

  5. Hi Joe, my dad Hyun Ku Yun went to Vietnam to teach Tae Kwon Do with the Tiger Division. He was a grandmaster and said he was stationed in Saigon and Qui Nuon. Did you know him? If so, do you have any memories of him that you could share with me?

    1. Lisa, I was never in or near Saigon, but I was near Qui Nhon and traveled there as part of my duty throughout my year of service in Vietnam. I am sorry to say I did not know your father, but I did meet many South Korean soldiers and they were all very good men, as I am sure your Dad was.
      If you have photos of him during his time of service in Vietnam, I could post them in some Vietnam Veteran Facebook groups with an inquiry. Contact me through the contact page of this website, if you like.

      1. Hi Joe, thank you for your response. Unfortunately, we don’t have any photos from Vietnam because they were destroyed in a house fire in Korea. I am looking forward to reading your book.

  6. Love the article Joe. I too went to the ROK camp to learn Tai Kwon Do when there with you although I wasn’t vey good. They kicked my butt. LOL

  7. Hi Joe!
    My dad was stationed with the Tiger Division (ROK) outside Phu Cat in 1968 with the US Army. When were you there? Id love to talk further and see if you knew him or have a way of finding others that may have known him during that time period. Thx!

  8. I made an ambulance run to that ROK position late one night. A SP jeep led the way, it was at least a mile from our wire. The ROK’s were all hunkered down in their fighting positions because of sniper fire. I followed my escort upwards through a trench to a small dugout bunker, barely lit with a little candle. The ROK officer that had come to the Dispensary looking for help, had described through gestures what I thought would be a gunshot wound to the head. Instead my patient had only suffered a small forehead laceration when he had dove for cover. Easily patched up, I then ran a gauntlet of appreciative ROK’s, grateful we had made the trip. My driver, waiting anxiously for my return, informed me our escort had left. Unarmed, with snipers reported in the area, we cautiously but quickly made our way back to the safety of our perimeter. Medic, Phu Cat AB, 70-71′

  9. I was assigned to the gun platoon of 129th AHC (slicks were callsign Bulldogs and guns callsign Cobras [Bravo and later, Charlie and Mike Model UH-1 gunships]) at Lane AHP, south of Phu Cat and NW of Qui Nhon. Lane shared a perimeter wire with the Tiger Division HQ while the 129th’s mission was Capital ROK/Tiger Division support. Our AHC did stellar work with the ROK’s who were some of the finest infantry in VietNam. regards, (Cobra) Alemaster

    1. Thanks for sharing with us Alemaster, those ROK’s were damn fine troops. And you guys did a pretty good job yourselves.

  10. In 1967 we did convoys daily between Qui Nhon and Pleiku with tractors pulling tankers full of 5,000 gals. of jet fuel. About a 200 mile round trip. We would pass a lot of infantry humping along the roads and they use to refer to us as Zippos Trucks, like the Zippos Lighters and it stuck with most of us. I broke down and there was some mix-up and no one came back for me and had to spend the night somewhere around the An-Khe Pass just me. I can’t recall what happen that night but the next morning I woke up in a Tiger Division Soilders Camp with just pants on. I was beat up badly. I was there for a week or so before my company came and got me. My M14 and everything else were gone. The only thing I learned that Korean Soilders found me in the bush far off the road and the only thing I had on was pants. Truck and tanker were gone. There is more to the story but to long. They apparently saved me. There are so many holes I just can’t remember them. Here is the outrages thing about this, there is no record that this happen to me. WHY no record? I think I know why no record!

      1. Joe VA sent me to a VA head doctor and he has help me pull somethings out I didn’t even know was there. It appears that the VC took me and took me into the bush but apparently didn’t kill me because they were scared off by the Korean Soilders. Apparently they had enough time to take everything from me but my pants. That’s all I have right now to try and explain what happen to me that night. Yes I am very glad they saved my butt.

      2. Joe, thanks for your efforts in preserving this rare record.
        I never expected any sign of recognition.
        Someday I hope to visit MacArthur Park in Seoul, to pay homage to the ROK there, and attest to our brotherhood.

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