Michael Levy Interview (Abridged Version) - 05/25/2005
Interview by Glenn Altshuler and Jacob Kravetz
The full text version, which includes audio clips, can also be viewed (link to unabridged version)
Q: When and where were you born?
Mr. Levy: Boston in 1930.
Q: Did you grow up in Boston, too?
Mr. Levy: I grew up in Boston, yep, and lived in Brighton and Brookline, those towns, growing up. And there I took my high school for half my high school career and then I went to a private school, Worchester Academy. By that time I was seventeen years old.
Q: So you were fifteen at the end of World War II?
Mr. Levy: I was fifteen at the end of the warÖsixteen, yeah sixteen.
Q: And what was your impression of the U.S.S.R. at the end of the war?
Mr. Levy: Well, during the war it was more or less favorable, you know. I mean, in other words they were an ally and had suffered greatly during the European war and it wasnt until after the war really, that the policy of containment was created, in terms of geo-political terms, and then things turned into the Cold War. The hottest point in the Cold War was obviously the Korean War because that was the only time that there was armed conflict during the whole period of the Cold War.
Q: How did your attitudes towards the U.S.S.R., you said you started out favorable, and then how did they change, when it began, from the beginning of World War II. Did you feel strongly at the time?
Mr. Levy: I think, during the fifties and the late forties, first of all, you had what was a big unifying force in the country, there was a common purpose in the whole United States.
Q: In that light, what was your concept of the U.N.? Although you said that you werent really that aware.
Mr. Levy: Well, the U.N. was different. At that time the U.N. was considered to be the great hope of man kind. This was never going to happen again, the U.N. was going to move in, Security Council was going to take care of things from then on and the usual old-fashioned power politics and fights between nations were going to be adjudicated in the U.N. The U.N. had a very positive image at that time.
Q: Did you, personally, believe the U.N. was going to be an effective organization?
Mr. Levy: Yeah, I think at that time, if I think about it, I certainly thought it was going to be effective.
Q: When did you join the military?
Mr. Levy: I joined the military right when I got out of college in 1951 and if you ask me why Im gonna tell you it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Q: Which branch of the service was it?
Mr. Levy: The Navy.
Q: How did your family feel about it?
Mr. Levy: They thought it was nuts. I was young. Like a lot of people at that age, its not flattering but I think I was pretty aimless. More interested in having a good time and running around than being serious. I was twenty-one years old.
Q: During Korea what was your rank?
Mr. Levy: I wasÖin the end I was a lieutenant junior-grade. I was an officer and I was on a destroyer.
Q: What was your job?
Mr. Levy: On a ship, a destroyer is basically a ship roughly, at that time, three hundred and some odd feet long and maybe forty five feet wide, carried about three hundred people, there were twenty-one officers. You had a specialty and basically you also were a general watch officer in which you were responsible for manning the ship in certain conflicts. My specialty was combat information center and electronics. Basically I was responsible for all that stuff on the ship and later on I became an officer of the deck.
Q: What were your feelings for the South Koreans during Korea?
Mr. Levy: Well, we were pretty sympathetic to them. Its one thing that sticks into my mind, even fifty-five years later. One of the things, we as U.S. armed forces today were woefully deficient in anybody that had any language skills. When you had to talk or do anything with, particularly when we were up on the line, the dividing line between the north and the south or up north of the dividing line, the navy at that point was largely operating on both sides of Korea and was operating largely in the sea of Japan. What we had on board was we had a series of South Korean naval ensigns who spoke some English but were basically on board to help us translate because we were boarding ships and playing, as I describe it, some military version of pirates, boarding ships and trying to blockade the coast. What happened was it was sort of one of the first times you saw someone from another culture up close, a really foreign culture and one of the things was the poor guys would come onboard ship and almost starve because they could not accommodate to western food and we didnt eat rice and they dont eat a lot of fat and grease and things like butter made them nauseous. So it was really an incredible sort of educational thing in the way of a culture class because you had never seen people like this. These were educated people who spoke some English, its not like you were talking to ignorant peasantry or anything like that but it was basically a totally different culture. We of course were heavily in favor of supporting the South Korean government. A lot of these guys even though they were naval officers thought that it was a dictatorship and didnt much like it. Sigmund Ree at that time was the old iron man of South Korea and they thought he was a dictator and didnt like him so offline when you talk to some of these people you got an entirely different thing.
Q: Were your feelings for the North Koreans really a contrast towards that?
Mr. Levy: Well, first of all they shot at us so youre not going to like them. How can I describe this? Basically, one of the things that happened was, Won Son Harbor which is still a major seaport of Korea, of all the things fifty-five years later when you look at the international situation this situation really hasnt change anymore than it did around 1953. You still have the border, still have this mad regime up north and they were brutal, they were brutal to their own people, particularly to the South Koreans there was no quarter given. They talk about Abu Graib, let me tell you that thats minor compared to some of the things they did. They would shoot somebody for no reason at all. What happened was, when we were in this area, when the Chinese swept south, the United States retained a bunch of islands that were off the North Korean coast. Basically, they wanted to use them as bargaining chips in the armistice talks which were going on. People dont really understand this but when the stalemate was reached really about the same place, there were more casualties in the last six months or a year than in the whole previous couple of years. It was the bloodiest time of the war. What happened was, we had these islands that we held and one of the problems was there was like 300,000 Chinese 1200 yards away from these islands and they could have just swum across and overwhelmed the six or seven hundred marines that were on each island. What the navy did was they kept two destroyers inshore around the islands at all times to prevent any kind of invasion. As a metaphor Ill give it to you this way, you have a bucket or a barrel, you cant leave the barrel because we couldnt leave the islands and youre sailing around in the middle of this barrel filled with water. Somewhere maybe ten yards away from the bucket, farther then you can reach with your weaponry, they have big guns, and what they do, so you can look at your ships as corks floating around in this bucket and steaming around in circles and various ways and these guys that are ten yards away are throwing rocks into the bucket. Now theyre not likely to hit the corks because its very hard because the corks are moving and everything else like this but if youre a cork its nerve racking. And that was our situation and we did not have friendly feelings towards either Chinese and/or the North Koreans.
Q: What did you feel the justification for the war was?
Mr. Levy: It was pretty simple. They had invaded; the North had invaded the South. If you look into the geopolitical history of it was a little murkier, it was a little bit like the Iraq war, did we say something that led them to believe we wouldnt react if they came south?
Q: What were your experiences in combat like? You talked a little about firing for support.
Mr. Levy: Ive thought about this a lot. The first thing is theres a sense of unreality. I still remember one time, its not something youre going to forget. Its a very bright day, very cold, the ship was keeled over, the guns were going off, and I remember sitting there looking at it and thinking ìMy god this is like a John Wayne movie. What the hell am I doing here?î That was my first reaction, the second reaction was ìOkay I hope I can do what Im supposed to do so nobody gets killed.î After a while you kind of get used to it, believe it or not. So we were there, in this particular area, for a month. We were the only East Coast ship that ever got combat pay. Combat pay was about fifty bucks extra a month if you got shot at more than ten times. It wasnt worth it.
Q: When the armistice and the peace talks began did you expect the war to be over soon?
Mr. Levy: No, as I said, one of the problems is youre concentrating on what youre doing and you dont have much sense of whats going on around you, you just know operations that are going on in your terms. Youre bussing and fuming about some mines in the water up above and youre more worried about ìAm I going to run into one of these things and blow the whole ship up?î, than you are aware. You knew that the armistice talks were going on. We didnt really know why they were keeping the islands. They were keeping the islands as a bargaining chip with the North Koreans.
Q: Did you ever question the validity of the U.N. having forces?
A: No you know I want to cover this because I think this is something that came up. You know the first time that there was a question in the United States, I believe, about fighting you know in any kind of combat action; was probably Vietnam. That there were doubts about the reasons for going in there. There were doubts about you know did you have a clear objective, you know stuff like that. I think in Korea they had a cause for action the question was when were you going to quit. And there was a clearer you know violation, the North you know crossing the Armistice line down and invading the South and we had promised to defend the South so it was a pretty clear thing, it wasnt like Vietnam it isnt like IraqÖ. Also a simpler time.
Q: Well, other than what you mentioned was your first time in battle and you said it was like a John Wayne movie were there any specific events that transpired during the war that had a significant impact upon you personally?
A: People say where did you grow up usually that is meant to be a geographic question like what town did you grow up in or something that. Well, I grew up on the bridge of a destroyer, thats where I grew up, I grew up going down the middle of a mine field at 25 knots, worrying that if I turned right or left I was going to get 300 people killed. And thats basically where I grew up.
Q: And, so when you finally got home, and got off the ship and went home, what was it like after having served in the war and having been around the world?
A: I, you know I think its an interesting thing, you hear a lot about people, you know having adjustment problems after getting out of the service. I mean its pretty wild, I drank a lot, did a lot of things, I mean cant tell you that I was this nice gentlemanly person, I certainly wasnt, you know, and I think one of the things was at that time, you know no matter how you felt you were sort of imbued with the idea that you pick up one foot in front of the other and you did what you were supposed to do no matter what you were up against, you know. I can certainly see how people get out of the service they have had combat experiences, could essentially have a real problem with integrating back into society. If you spent a lot of time on board a ship which is a totally different atmosphere than society, however you want to call it, was just not like society in general and so when I got out I went back to school for a while and then I got married and that basically changed my life as you would expect.
Q: Upon arriving back how were you treated by the general public, because like you said it wasnt like the war was won?
A: Not well. People number one didnt know anything about it, I can remember coming back and youd say where you were and theyd kinda look at you. So there was a lot of, I would describe it as indifference. People just didnt know, I attribute that to the fact that you didnt really, you know the newspapers covered it the newsmagazines covered it but there was no real big deal and thats what people got.
Q: How do you feel now knowing that the Korean war has come to be called the forgotten war?
A: I wont forget it (laughs). I guess would be the way that I would describe it. I think, as the thing that I described about a fact that I think people will be a lot more interested once Habistan publishes his book. I mean hes very very critical of some of the strategy that we followed and some of the decisions that were made. But I think it would be interesting because it will bring about sort of a recognition for it. I think it was a pivotal thing during the Cold War as far as the Russians were concerned. You know because nobody, the problem is international stuff, international geo-political stuff is basically a game of chicken and it can be very dangerous. I think that you know the Korean War at least made the Russians understand that if you cross the line in a certain way that we will react.
Q: And why do you think that the Korean War is called the, is a forgotten war?
A: Well to my mind, it was partly the structure of society partly the fact that it was a simpler time and mostly that there was no media coverage. I mean one of the reasons why you see all the stuff about the Vietnam War is that we have all these pictures of rockets and these pictures of people fighting, WWII you have the newsreels and movies but you dont see any of Korea.
Q: I think that youve touched on this one but looking back what would you say was the general atmosphere of the 50s?
A: I keep describing it as a simpler time, a much simpler time, in other words the economy was expanding, if you wanted a job you could get a job, if you wanted to get a good ob you could get a good job, if you wanted to get an education you could do that. I have two sons and theyre about 40 years old, and there lives are far more difficult, not in terms of their accomplishments or something but they have a lot more choices that they have to make along the way that have an affect on what their life is going to be like later one, you didnt have that many choices. You know you got married had kids you got a job you worked, you know you expected to do better than your parents did. You know, I mean it was a simpler time; the American dream was very simple there werent as many things to think about.