Thursday, September 25, 2008

Cordwood: More Poems from the Forgotten War

Ralph Jacobs, the author of CORDWOOD, A COLLECTION OF KOREAN WAR POEMS, is a treasured friend and a Harvard educated medical doctor. He served in Dog Medical Company, First Marine Division, in the Korean War.

I served in the Marines from July 1950, through June 1951. . . I hope the poems will offer a personal lens for you to see and feel my experiences in Korea. Many of the events, situations, and dilemmas in these poems mirror what others have seen and felt in other wars."
Ralph Jacobs, from his Introduction
April, 2004

The four poems that follow are from Ralph’s third “chapter”: Winter and Early Spring, 1951. I will post poems from his final chapter, Late Spring, 1951, before the presidential election.


A counteroffensive—
we Marines recapture rice paddies, villages
seized by the Chinese three weeks ago.

Ambulanced to our field hospital—
six wounded GI’s—left
wounded in the snow weeks ago.
North Korean farmers risking death
had carried them into their huts,
fed them rice and tea by the fire,
helped by wives and children.

Phil gaunt but with a feeble smile—
wasted to the marrow,
has bilateral bronchopneumonia.
His punctured chest cavity oozes green.
We suction pus, insert drains,
start Streptomycin and penicillin.

The top of Ernie’s left foot—
a thick cotton dressing applied weeks ago
by a Chinese medic.
a swarm of maggots eating dead tissue—
nature’s beautiful debridement—
extensor tendon sheaths shine below.

We place their stretchers by our pot stove,
feed them Hershey bars, and listen.

Screaming news—600—heavy casualties
from the Marines, the Army, ROK* troops.
Everything is coming our way—right now.

Evaluating the wounded in Receiving:
I order shock therapy stat.
I order others to the holding tent—
belly surgery, chest surgery, many for major debridement.*
Pressing corpsmen to quick-step and IV and IM meds,
surgical preps, IV plasma and blood.
Snarling suddenly—too low a blood supply.
Commanding by phone--more blood by copter.

Scrubbing up to insert chest tubes in the short of breath.
Sheathing hot water bottles around frozen blood units.
Surveying surgery—all teams with shiny retractors bent over
wide-open bellies, wide-open chests,
large shrapnel wounds being debrided—
then lavaged, lavaged, lavaged.
Supervising corpsmen casting arms, legs,
dressing face wounds—
dressing genitals, abdomens, thighs.
Wolfing a Tootsie Roll for supper.

Lifting stretchers, flipping sutures, giving open drop
ether anesthesia throughout the night.
Devouring a Spam sandwich at midnight.

Overcast dawn, bitter 20 degrees below, light snow falling.
A wall of cordwood:
Two piles, each four frozen bodies high,
line our path to the mess tent.

*Republic of Korea
**removal of dead tissue and foreign material

A stretcher in our hospital tent—
a Korean mother,
a six-year-old girl clings
to her quilted jacket.
Shell fragments had thundered—
flung her against her stove
Her right upper arm—
a triangle pointing backward—

I flush the wound with saline,
Pluck out clothing with forceps,
necrotic tissue with scissors,
smooth the plaster of Paris into
a hanging cast from shoulder to hand,
Ace-wrap the cast to her body,
write on it in Korean—
Please don’t take off for three months
—until May.

One month later our hospital
is 100 miles north in rugged mountains.
On a mountain path two men plug along
with a patient on a stretcher,
a small child dogging their footsteps,
through rain and sleet.

My patient—castless.
Her fracture grates.
I’m pleased to see her flesh wounds healed.
I reapply that cast
And plead—Please,
please don’t take off for three months
—until June.

On post-op rounds one morning
I attend patients from seven countries
lying on a row of stretchers.

The small Korean boy—
the plastic repair of his hand looks fine.
A US marine in a leg cast has
a fracture from a mortar wound.
The Royal British Marine has good bowel sounds
since belly surgery.
His Cockney accent I understand.
The Frenchman’s breathing improves
since chest surgery.
His English is much better than my French.
The Aussie with his broad accent
thanks us Yanks for his face-neck repair.
The tough looking Greek—large dressings
over his lumbar spine and right thigh look OK.
The wiry Turk looks even tougher.
I check his arm and side bandages.
We shake hands.

Poems from Jacobs’ first and second chapters of poems: Trip to Korea, Inchon and Seoul Campaigns, and the Chosin Reservoir Campaign can be read on this blog. In addition, Spectrum Blog has previously posted a piece I submitted in which Jacobs’ poem, Cordwood, is featured.)

“Cordwood” can be purchased from Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Bl., Corte Madera (415-927-9016) or Ralph Jacobs, 55 La Costa Ct, Novato, CA 94947 (415-898-6064).

No comments: