There was still ice on Pike Lake in front of Richard Ellmers’ house as we recently chatted over the phone one May afternoon. He had just put his King Salmon house up for sale and was planning to move to Anchorage after this winter’s record snowfall. Dick, who was babysitting a couple of neighbor cats, seemed resigned to leave chopping wood as getting to Anchorage for routine medical appointments was getting harder. He had once owned a boat for halibut and salmon fishing out of Homer. But for the past decades attorney Richard Ellmers has flown around Bristol Bay doing fisheries law.
His love for water began in his boyhood when his salesman father would do business around the Cuyahoga River flats or his brother would let him ride in the Ford V8’s rumble seat heading out to Lake Erie where for a few dollars you could rent a horse or a rowboat for fishing. The year was 1941, and older brother Chuck was about to enter World War II as a Navy radar operator, using a new and secret weapon. Oh dear, I’ve segued from my phone conversation with Dick into his book, Regular Army Corporal… Ellmers is a mesmerizing story teller both vocally and in print. With a hint of past Midwestern authors, the likes of Anderson, and Dreiser, Ellmers takes his readers back to growing up around Cleveland with the backdrop of World War II.
Dick tells a great tale about skipping high school to head south with a buddy. After a train, a bus and some hitchhiking they unexpectedly arrived at the farm of Vera and Jack Melvin near Birmingham. Here is what Ellmer says about the Melvins:
“Walter was a retired and disabled coal miner who had suffered much illness and many injuries in his impoverished childhood and years in the mines…he was virtually illiterate…He showed me how to make basket fish traps, and we would pull them out of the river in the early morning hours and take the catfish to Vera…Vera was a legal drug addict.”
Ellmers’ parents eventually caught up with him further south in Sarasota. He recounts, “The long train ride back to Cleveland was one of the dreariest and depressing experiences of my life.”
After attending several different high schools, and Chuck safely home following VJ Day, Ellmers too headed for a military recruiting office that would eventually morph into five tours of duty in Korea. He describes the dynamics of basic training, the picky inspections, living in close quarters with strangers and finally being propelled into a disorganized Korean War as America’s armed forces were still depleted from World War II.
What does a baby boomer like me find fascinating with a war long gone? My ideas about modern warfare don’t go much beyond what Hollywood has dished out. As a child in the fifties, I heard stories about World War II. My cousin Donald was part of the Black Sheep squadron and spent time in a Japanese prison camp, while another cousin Thomas was a Yale trained linguist who was killed by a sniper in Luzon. My father Bill never dreamed of being a soldier, nonetheless spending four years in North Africa and Southern France. Dad had lived a country club existence growing up around suburban Boston spending summers racing his sailboat and playing golf on Martha’s Vineyard. He volunteered for the Navy right after law school to avoid being drafted, ending up as a communications officer pounding out Morse code. He told of living in a Marseilles chateau the military had confiscated, the Reader’s Digest became toilet paper. Once he passed up a chance to see de Gaulle for a piece of blueberry pie and another time almost blew his head off burning classified documents in a barrel filled with gasoline. Other than that, he imparted very little to his three daughters. There were whisperings around the house about his nightmares. Dad’s excessive drinking was always excused by morning after explanations that he had been “slipped a mickey” when out partying with Mother. Sadly, he retreated into a world of cocktail parties and gambling, eventually dying in his mid-fifties, leaving us girls to fend for ourselves.
Although Ellmers’ wartime experiences were not like my father’s, I found he provided imagery I never envisioned, which perhaps helped to explain some of what was missing from my family puzzle. Regular Army Corporal contains graphic descriptions of combat while pointing out the ineptitude of a military who promised warm clothing and hot meals but didn’t always deliver. Dick Ellmers can be amusing. His early days at Fort Bragg’s basic training required “spit and polish” inspections. Aluminum canteens and cups would routinely blacken near campfires but had to look like new upon next-day inspections. Ellmers knew about chrome plating as his dad had gotten him a job during the war in a plant-metal plating shop. So on a day off he found a similar plant in Fayetteville. When asked by the colonel, “How did you get your gear looking like that, soldier?” Ellmers, who shortly after was made a corporal, replied, “Elbow grease, Sir!”
For Ellmers, the Korean War began by passing under the Golden Gate Bridge in an overcrowded Military Sea Transport Service ship crammed with soldiers. Three men were assigned to a bunk in eight hour shifts. While the ship changed course to avoid possible enemy submarines, the men spent hours in chow lines or playing poker and crap games, strictly illegal. Finding himself assigned to the wrong unit after landing in Yokohama and being promised a winter sleeping bag but having to make do with wool blankets sown into a mummy configuration, shows just how ill-prepared America was for the Far East. Ellmers takes his readers on countless ironic close calls, accidently avoiding the enemy; the enemy turning out to be unexpectedly friendly, or accidental killings from friendly fire. Then there were the uprooted civilians running in all directions, more often than not starving and diseased as the platoons of rats.
I learned that few enlisted men were issued pistols. To Ellmers’ surprise, his parents illegally mailed him one hidden in a foil package marked candy. And how there were months of wearing the same socks and uniforms resulting in skin problems, or feeling ravenous hunger to the point of sometimes eating what might have been poisonous. Or how the occasional bathing in a river during an artillery lull often resulted in parasitic infections. Still there was silliness when someone tied together pup tents that got dragged down the road by an unsuspecting captain and his driver heading to a staff meeting. And surprise when General MacArthur rode by with his signature leather jacket and aviator sunglasses.
It may seem anachronous, but trench warfare was still used in Korea. Ellmers is at his best when describing life in the mud, “When we tried to dig foxholes we often dug up more bodies in the collapsed trenches and fortifications, and the stench of rotting flesh permeated everything…The worst times were in the heat of the day when the clouds of flies gorging on rotting flesh were all over everything, including any food you tried to eat and crawling into your mouth, nose and eyes if you dozed off.” Nearby, Jack Benny and his USO show would be entertaining in the division rear.
Ellmers’ book ends just as the Korean War winds down. As we talked over the phone on that cold Alaskan May afternoon, I learned he was a bodyguard in Germany during the Cold War and taught law in Kazakhstan just after the Millennium, which I hope will appear in a subsequent book.
Regular Army Corporal by Richard Ellmers is available on Amazon.