By Suzanne Rice, Wife of COL Bill Rice, 1-15 Field Artillery, Camp Stanley, Korea
Bill was on an unaccompanied assignment in Korea in the 1-15 Field Artillery when I decided to go and live in Korea – even if I was not authorized to be there and brought nothing but two suitcases of clothing for almost a year’s stay. Before my arrival in Korea in June 1973, Bill found an apartment (one room) for me over a Korean grocery. The second floor apartment had recently been added above the store. The Korean family that owned the store and I shared the newly installed Western bathroom on the first floor. The apartment was completely empty so we went in search of a bed (yo – a fold-up mattress) and that was the extent of the furniture that we had besides the electric skillet that I sent from home and the hot plate that Bill had somehow acquired before my arrival.
It was hot summer when I arrived, so we got a fan, but had no other appliances. This Korean house had no stove or refrigeration as we would know it. It was a pretty sparse existence, but one that we treasured because we could spend some time together. As the Battery Commander, Bill was required to live in the BOQ with the other officers, but we could sometimes have lunch in the Camp Stanley snack bar when he was not “in the field”.
When he arrived in Korea, Bill found one of his West Point roommates already there with his wife and two year old daughter. Our apartment was a block or so away from my new friends. When these friends left Korea for another assignment, we moved into their Korean house. It was a much larger apartment made up of a Korean kitchen, and three other rooms. We used one for a living room/bedroom, one as our American-style cooking kitchen and the smallest room for storage (we really didn’t have anything to store there, but we had the room, anyway.) While we lived in all this luxury, the Korean family of six lived in one room adjacent to our apartment. They were paying off the debt of building the house by renting to Americans who could pay more; eventually, they intended to move into the four-room apartment we rented from them.
The Korean kitchen was a large room three steps below the rest of the house. It contained a sink (not potable water – I got an eye infection from using the water) and a Korea “stove” which lined the whole side of the room below the living room. In the floor of the “stove” were large round indentations in which were placed gigantic round charcoal briquettes (compared to American charcoal used for BBQ). These briquettes, perhaps 10 inches in diameter and 12 inches high, were lit on fire and they provided the heat for cooking, warming water and for heating the one room that could be heated in the winter – our living room/bedroom. These briquettes would be delivered by the charcoal vender several times a week. We would eat our meals on a small folding table while sitting on the heated floor – like Koreans, we had no furniture but the yo. If we had guests, we all sat on the floor.
How did the briquettes heat the house? At the time, Korean homes were heated with ondol heating. The room to be heated was built with flues (pipes) in the floor which were connected to the heat source in the kitchen. Hot air was circulated into these flues and kept the floor very warm in the winter. The floor itself was made of concrete with a covering of thin linoleum which could be removed from time to time. The linoleum needed to be removed for a very important purpose: to look for cracks in the concrete floor. Why? The fumes from the charcoal were poisonous and, if there were cracks in the floor, the carbon monoxide fumes would seep up through the floor and asphyxiate the occupant of the room especially when sleeping since the thin bed pad sat right on the floor to take advantage of the heated floor. Because of the possible carbon monoxide fumes, a window had to be open in the room, no matter the temperature outside. Once during our stay in Ui Jong Bu, it got to 35 degrees below zero. The floor was warm but the breezes from the window kept the temperature pretty cool in the winter. Two American wives who were unaware of the danger died from carbon monoxide poisoning near Camp Casey the winter I was there. It was a pretty ingenious use of natural resources, but could be deadly. Before we left in March 1974, some American wives found apartments that had newly installed steam heat which was a great improvement.
I mentioned the Western bathroom at our old place and some might wonder, even though the second apartment was much roomier, why we would make the move since the bathroom at the new place was a banjo and did not have the Western-style facilities. In other words, the bathroom was a hole in the floor outside in the courtyard of the Korean home where the new apartment was located – and unheated in the winter. Being an old Girl Scout, I was not bothered by an outdoor toilet and found it much better than a Western bathroom that almost never worked. The honey wagon would come by weekly to clean out our facility and it was always clean and working!
It was an amazingly unique first year for a young married couple.