May 18, 2024
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May 18, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

In the mountains of Seoul.

Only five years earlier—a German refugee.

Out of my office window—front gate of Capitol Building.

Part 12 (written 2004)

(Continued from last week)

I have already identified Major Bong as my Battalion Commander who twice had rejected my request for a transfer out of the infantry into the Military Government. In addition to being Battalion Commander, Major Bong was also the Supply Officer for the 7th Division. As such, he had responsibility for all purchasing in Korea for anything required by the entire 7th Division.

One day, a few weeks after the second rejection, Major Bong called Mr. Kissinger for an appointment. Mr. Kissinger, naturally, immediately recognized the name, although Major Bong did not know Mr. Kissinger in any capacity. When Major Bong met with Mr. Kissinger he inquired as to whether it would be possible for the Korean aluminum industry to manufacture mess trays for the division, since at that time the Army in Korea was still eating out of field mess kits. Mr. Kissinger answered affirmatively, but with a provision that he be granted a favor from Major Bong. Major Bong, obviously overjoyed that his mission had been successful, agreed to whatever Mr. Kissinger was about to request. Mr. Kissinger, thereupon, asked that PFC Norbert Strauss be allowed to transfer from the infantry to the Military Government.

That is how I ended up in the Department of Commerce of USAMGIK (United States Army Military Government in Korea), which, upon reflection, would have a major impact on my future.

Not only was my new work environment a major change for the better, but my living quarters were vastly improved as well. I was now an office clerk, on the day shift, with no nighttime responsibilities and free on Sundays. Saturday was still a regular work day.

On Sundays I would often drive into the mountains visiting villages and bringing candy to the many children that would congregate around my Jeep.

My first assignment, when I reported for work the following day, was to run a manual stencil copy machine, of the type then in use in all offices. By the end of the day, my hands, and sometimes face, and uniform, were purple since the ink easily came off the stencils being used.

From then on, until I returned to the US in 1947, I advanced, not only in position and responsibilities, but also in rank, rather quickly. Walter, as he increased my responsibilities in his department, needed to move me into higher rank as quickly as possible, so that I could deal with civilians, both US and Korean, as well as military personnel (including officers), on a bit more equal footing.

In civilian life a business can easily hire someone and make that person right away an officer of the company. In the Army, with certain exceptions, you can be advanced only one rank at a time.

Consequently, although as a civilian Mr. K. could only recommend promotions to the military, his recommendations were carried through as quickly as the papers could move (which in the army is not always very fast). I had been a PFC when I came to the Department of Commerce, then promoted to Corporal, then Sergeant, and Walter’s request for my promotion to Staff Sergeant was in the pipeline, only to miss out by a few days, since my file by then had already been returned to the US, in anticipation of my return for discharge. Being promoted almost three times in a period of about 10 months was not bad.

As far as titles were concerned on the civilian side, which was something Walter could control, I had obviously started as an office clerk, but ended with the dual title of Sergeant Major (for the military personnel) and Chief Clerk (for the civilian personnel) of the Department of Commerce. The new Korean government was organized so that each Korean employee had a twin in the form of a member of the US Army. The purpose was obviously to teach the new Korean employees how to run the new government so that eventually the troops could be withdrawn. Thus, in my position I was in charge of both civilian and Army personnel.

To quote from my Army Separation Qualification Record:

“Administrative Non-Commissioned Officer 502

Served over 10 months in Korea with Headquarters and Headquarters Company US Army Military Government in Korea. Supervised and directed work of 80 enlisted men as Sergeant Major Department of Commerce. Coordinated work of Korean civilian and military personnel. Prepared required correspondence.”

Before the above became official, I was given the choice of being called either Chief Clerk or Sergeant Major. They could not state both titles. I chose Chief Clerk since Sergeant Major would have been too confusing. Although my position was called Sergeant Major, I did not have the military rank with the same name.

My Discharge Certificate also carries the notation: “Recommended for further military training” —whatever that was supposed to mean.

If the reader is getting the impression that I am patting myself on the back, and that I seem to be proud of what I accomplished there—you are so right. The reader must remember that I was Norbie, an 18-year-old boy, when I entered the army, having just almost failed out of college. I was an almost 20-year-old young man when I was discharged in February, 1947 and the above quotes are evidence of the change.

This change from boy to man brought about another type of adjustment in me. I was determined that when I returned to New York, I would enter college again and be successful at it. With that in mind, I had already gone to a school the Army maintained in Korea and had taken several courses for which I eventually received credit in college, in addition to the credits given for having served in the Armed Forces. I left New York a failure in engineering, switched my major while in Korea, and re-entered the College of the City of New York, Baruch School of Business, working toward a BBA, which I received in 1949.

These eight years, since we had come to the US in 1941, included starting in elementary school, then high school, college, in the Army and then completing college, all in just eight years! Now tell me, is that not a worthy accomplishment for a refugee boy from Germany?

(To be continued next week)

 By Norbert Strauss


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