Growing up in rural Massachusetts in the late 1940s, David Valley had only one serious goal: "To get the hell out of small-town New England." When he was 17 years old, he got his chance. He enlisted in the Army and signed up for an engineering program to learn how to make maps. But the Korean War broke out, and instead of learning to make maps Valley found himself, in July 1950, one of the first replacements sent to Korea after the 24th Division had been "badly mauled" in the Battle of Taejon.
"I suppose every young fellow thinks war's a lark. I know we did. We were ready to go over there and shoot some gooks, pardon the expression. But when we landed in Pusan and saw all the dead and wounded, we saw war was a serious business."
And a confusing one.
"It's almost impossible to describe the level of chaos we encountered. And we were right in the middle of it. We had no training. We had no squad leader. Nothing. All I knew was that we were riding down a road in a truck, and all of a sudden there was a major general standing in the middle of the road, stopping trucks. He ordered the men to get out, and he'd say, 'Okay, I need three men to go to that hill, and three men to go to that other hill.' By the time he got to me and another fellow, he'd run out of hills, and he said, 'You men get in that truck and go get some ammunition.' We did as we were told. We climbed into the back of this truck, and the driver took off. We were both exhausted, so exhausted that we fell asleep as the truck bumped down the road. When we woke up we looked around and had absolutely no idea where we were. We realized the driver was heading north, straight toward North Korea. We banged on the window and yelled, 'Where are you going?' And he yelled back, 'I don't know. The only thing I know is that I'm gettin' the hell out of here!' We jumped off the truck and headed for the hills. We wandered around for three days before we finally ran into a signal corps unit stringing wire. They pointed us to where the troops were.
"From July 1950 through March 1951, I participated in just about all the major offenses. When I first got to Korea, I was scared of my own shadow. At night, in the trenches, if I heard a noise, I'd literally wet my pants. I realized I was killing myself. Killing myself with fear. We'd had no training. I had to train myself to keep my head down at the right time. Some people were instructive. I had a squad leader, a little Filipino guy who wasn't much taller than an M-1 rifle. He was as tough as they come. At night he'd go out by himself on patrol, cross over enemy lines, and kill men. The next day, when we were out, he'd say, 'Go look behind that tree over there, you'll find two dead North Koreans.' And there they'd be. He was fearless. You learned things from people like that.
"One day somebody told me I had to appear at headquarters, that a lieutenant from General MacArthur's Honor Guard in Tokyo wanted to talk with me. To this day I don't know how they heard about me. In 1945, when General MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, was in Manila, and the war was coming to an end, he decided he needed a select unit of 200 men to provide security for himself, his staff, his family, and visiting dignitaries. MacArthur was in a class by himself. He was not only extremely competent, he was that sort of man who, if he wanted an Honor Guard, by God he was going to have it. He got his Honor Guard, and when he moved on to Tokyo, the unit went with him.
"It seems some men from the Honor Guard in Tokyo wanted to come to Korea to fight, and the Honor Guard was looking for replacements. There were requirements. You had to be at least six feet tall, have an IQ of at least 110, a good physique, and you had to have combat experience. The lieutenant met me at headquarters and interviewed me for about 30 minutes. The next thing I knew I was on my way to Tokyo, one of two men from my division to have been hand-picked for MacArthur's Honor Guard.
"After the hell of Korea, Japan was like Shangri-La. There I was, this kid from rural Massachusetts who'd gone straight into battle in Korea, and I found myself in Japan, which was extremely exotic, extremely charming. And General MacArthur's Honor Guard was one of the sharpest units ever. We wore tailored uniforms and blue silk scarves we tucked into our collars, and we had special things in the legs of our pants to keep the creases straight. We looked great. Half a detachment was assigned to the embassy, where the General lived, and the other half, which I served in, was assigned to the Dai Ichi Building, where the General worked, just across the moat of the Imperial Palace, which was one of the few parts of Tokyo left unscathed by all the bombing. We used to parade right through the grounds of the Imperial Palace.
"The Honor Guard was select duty. We were one day on, one day off. Even on days we worked, we got a six-hour pass. We got to get out and see a little of Japan. Of course, what are most young GIs interested in? Booze and women. I did my share of that, but I also went to school to study Japanese. And the Japanese people, the common tradespeople who we had most contact with, were extremely kind to us. I remember that once when I had a three-day pass, I got loaded and ended up at Tokyo station and decided I was going to see something of Japan. I jumped on some train. I had no idea where it was going. I must have passed out. And when I woke up the next morning, I was in this beautiful little inn on the coast, about 60 miles south of Tokyo. Someone must have found me and taken me to that inn.