Veterans' Stories

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They Were Home

by Des Guilfoyle 3400632, 1RAR & 2RAR
6 August 1952 - 8 August 1953

The soldiers in the American Civil War called them 'bombproofs'. The Anzacs on Gallipoli and the Western Front had them but no name seems to have emerged. World War II, being more mobile, did without them and in the Korean War we called them hootchies.

I refer of course to those underground, or partially underground and sandbagged structures that served as living quarters and were a feature of static trench warfare. They all had the same features...and were neither weather proof, bombproof, rat proof or any proof; however, they did afford some protection from shellfire and the weather.

MY introduction to this form of architecture was in August 1952 when I arrived in Korea. The war which had started in June 1950, after an initial mobile phase, had settled down to dreary trench warfare by November 1951. As the war ground on, each unit that occupied a sector of the front line established a trench system and fortifications. Each unit that followed improved these earthworks but little thought or time was given to the comfort or protection of the troops.

Our hootchies (the name probably derived from 'Ochie', Japanese for the inside of a house or room) were built in that rare commodity afforded our soldiers - spare time, and out of anything that could be scrounged. As a result they were flimsy, damp and dangerous in as much as they would not stand a direct hit and could, and in one case did, collapse and kill an occupant, and also cold, damp and often crowded. The log construction meant they were a ready built refuge for rats that occupied the front line positions in plague proportions.

These obnoxious creatures carried lice that in turn carried haemorrhagic fever, an often fatal disease. The Army however provided abundant literature on how to avoid this complaint, but to my knowledge never provided any rat poison or fumigants to get rid of the primary source. We improvised by burning cordite or kerosene, the fumes of which often affected the human occupants as much as the rats.

Another example of the blinkered thinking of the army high brass was to have our hootchies inspected by some high-ranking colonel blimp, obviously dredged out of a rear echelon billet. The result was that almost all were classed as unsafe and not to be used. No thought, however, was given to any alternative shelter, and of course, we continued to live in them. The risk from the hootchies was minuscule compared with the many and varied dangers that were an every day occurrence. Good, bad or indifferent, they were our home.

Another interesting feature about hootchies became apparent after I had spent some time in Korea. The further from the front line, the better the hootchie. Strong, substantial structures built without the inconvenience of enemy observation or shellfire by troops occupying safe rear echelons, in direct contrast to the flimsy efforts scratched up by tired troops at the front. Another case of the right structure in the wrong place.

Our government, mindful of the bitter winter cold, provided us with excellent winter clothing but no heating was ever provided for the crude shelters. Accordingly, with the ingenuity that is characteristic of the Aussie soldier, we improvised 'choofers' - crude stoves made out of discarded petrol tins. The fuel, diesel, dripped from a pipe into the hot tin, and the droplets ignited with 'choof'. Hence the name.

They were notoriously unreliable, liable to explode and were the cause of many burn casualties. The government did not provide sufficient fuel, so the short fall was made up with all sorts of scrounged supplies including, sometimes, high octane petrol. An unintended by-product of the choofers was that the black smoke they emitted often made us look like the Kentucky Minstrels. I have no doubt this also contributed to the breathing problems so many veterans suffer today.

It must have finally dawned on the Army high brass or the politicians - perhaps the many reports forwarded by our commanders after being noted, discussed, and filed, finally came to light - for some effort was eventually made to provide adequate, bomb proof and weather proof and therefore relatively comfortable quarters. Accordingly teams of Korean labourers under the supervision of Army engineers, descended on the front line positions and soon established new hootchies.

They had solid timber supports, overhead cover, were reasonably spacious and well ventilated. Unfortunately, most of them were built just before the ceasefire. In fact one of our last tasks before pulling back from our positions in accordance with the terms of the ceasefire was to demolish and salvage the material from these new structures!

Like everything else from the Government...too little or too late!

First Published in The Voice, February 2016