“Are you saying these kids are our reinforcements?”
“… Yes sir.”
“Weren’t we one of the elite corps in the army? Notorious against the Japs? We even got to be on the TV.”
“That’s why we got this many kids in the first place. There are battalions that received only one or two boys as reinforcements.”
“This is nuts.”
Joon-young surveyed the underprepared, underage soldiers cowering. Watching them trying their best to avoid eye contact brought a deep sigh from within. They were most likely conscripted by force from the neighbouring towns. Joon-young wondered how many of them actually volunteered to be here.
Irritated, Joon-young spat at the ground and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. It was a rare find from a nearby grocery shop, which was looted clean by the refugees.
Sergeant Min Won-hoo of the first platoon was quick to respond after seeing the pack, rubbing his hands together as a gesture for begging. The supply lines had been cut for a while now. They had to scavenge for their supplies, pillaging and foraging nearby shops and houses for food and clothes.
Joon-young pulled out a cigarette, then threw the entire pack at Min Won-hoo.
“Oh! Thank you!”
“Don’t be stingy and share it with your squad in your final moments.”
For a brief second, Min Won-hoo’s face darkened at the talk about their eventual demise before brightening up again.
“Our final moments?”
Joon-young pointed at the reinforcements with his chin.
“We’ve got generals telling us to fight with child soldiers. We have nowhere to run and there are rumours in the headquarters that we’ve been labelled as rebel forces. The only upside is that the Japs are forced to use their own army. They are scared that if they use the surrendered Korean army against us, they will just switch sides to join us again.”
Min Won-hoo’s face crumbled as he swore at the sky, then joined Joon-young as he lit a cigarette of his own.
Joon-young replied as he pulled out another pack of cigarette. Min Won-hoo’s eyes brightened at the sight of another pack, but Joon-young ignored him and kept it for himself.
When the great leader of the North suddenly passed away, their army began to mobilise south. China joined in using their alliance as a reason, while Japan began to create beachheads using their alliance with South Korea as pretext.
It was a pre-emptive strike against South Korea, but the Americans jumped ship the moment it happened as if there was a pre-war arrangement. They only defended their embassy, allowing select politicians and billionaires to enter and be escorted into America while shooting at the rest of the refugees. The president of South Korea immediately declared surrender and was exiled to America. Ironically, the war clearly distinguished the traitors from the patriots.
Some of the few politicians and generals of the army refused the declaration of surrender and formed a provisional government. They seemed to show some resistance, even managing to score a few victories at the start of the war.
But the continuous assault from multiple frontlines forced them into a perpetual retreat, and the remaining politicians were split on the decision to surrender. Ports and airports were flooded with refugees attempting to escape the war, while the desperate cries of ambassadors for assistance went unheard amongst other nations. South Korea never had the capabilities to fight alone against China, North Korea and Japan.
While the lack of manpower could be managed through volunteers and conscription, it was impossible to replace the officers who died in battle. Like a headless chicken, the army had no aim, no objectives, and no strategy. The lack of officers was so severe that Joon-young was temporarily promoted from Sergeant to Captain during the reorganisation of the depleted army.
On the Expo Plaza, there wasn’t a single building intact, and the ground was littered with craters from artillery fire.
Joon-young was close to joining the recruit when he saw him vomiting as he was tasked to gather the body of a soldier who was hit directly by an artillery shell. As the brave and the patriotic officers died in droves, the selfish and cowardly officers, too timid to escape the war, were left to give orders.
The army, once fighting for the noble war of 2nd independence, devolved into marauding bandits pillaging and forcefully recruiting from nearby villages for the war.
“How much ammo do we have?”
Min Won-hoo scratched his oily head at the difficult question.
“We’re doing our best, looting through the dead bodies and all but after a single fight we’re gonna have to use bayonets.”
“Likewise. Each squad has about 3 of them.”
“We threw that heavy baggage a long time ago.”
“This is insane.”
Min Won-hoo’s replies brought a sigh from Joon-young. It was the worst-case scenario. They are running low on ammunition but the headquarters are still ordering soldiers to stand their ground to the end. Thankfully, they are managing on the food department, but seeing how well it’s been digested with your eyes as your comrades get blown up in pieces didn’t give much reassurance.
Defeat was certain. The Japs will be making a push with their armoured vehicles on the front, infantry at the back and airforce for support, and they only had rifles to fight against them. It was the Kamikaze spirit of the 2nd world war, Tennoheika Banzai all over again. Joon-young was determined to not see that.
PR Note: Tennoheika Banzai refers to a Japanese battle cry during World War II that translated literally into “Long live His Majesty the Emperor,” commonly shouted right before a suicide attack referred to by American soldiers as a “banzai charge.”
“Get the boys ready.”
Min Won-hoo immediately understood the underlying meaning, and made a small smile.
“From where to where?”
“All the kids who have a bright future ahead of them. Not the crazy bastards like you or sane but old ones like me. The rest are to run on their own.”
“The battalion’s gonna shrink significantly if you do that. The commander won’t like it.”
“How the hell would you know the commander when I’ve never seen him? Did we get a new commander in place of the one that surrendered?”
“I’ve never seen him.”
“Then do as I say. Ah! Give this to the squad leaders as well.”
Joon-young threw two more packs of cigarettes at Min Won-hoo. Min Won-hoo wondered where all these cigarettes were popping up from, then ran off to the defensive line. Soon, around 30 boys came out to meet Joon-young.
From a middle schooler wearing sneakers and oversized uniform to a high schooler wearing just a grey shirt and a helmet, they were children who still had much to look for in life. Tension filled the air, as the kids weren’t sure if this was okay.
Deserters were executed the moment they were caught in the act, and how it was done became much harsher the more desperate things became. These kids had seen the brutal ends of those who had been caught, and were worried despite it being the order from Joon-young himself.
Joon-young handed a white flag to the oldest looking boy.
“Take this and cross the bridge. If the Japs have any shred of humanity, they will let you pass if only young ones surrender.”
“What? Don’t say some bullshit like fighting to the death and piss off.”
While the boy hesitated, a sound of an engine could be heard from behind. Joon-young turned to see that it was a car commissioned to the battalion commanders.
“Is that the new commander?”
While the soldiers stood restless, Joon-young muttered as he calmly faced the car.
The car stopped in front of Joon-young, and a lieutenant-colonel came out of the car, decorated with two hibiscus epaulettes on his shoulders. He shouted the moment he came out, his face filled with anger.
“What are you doing gathered all around here, and why aren’t you preparing for combat! Who’s in charge here?”
Joon-young was surprised to see a senior commander still fighting on the field. But one brief look of his brand new equipment and he understood immediately.
‘Kuk, so the rumours were true.’
A rumour had been going around amongst the veteran soldiers and officers in the army. Officers who continued to fight until the end are guaranteed of their position and pension, in hopes that it would lower the desertion rate. When these words spread, missing generals and officers began to pop up left and right. The war was over anyway. By joining at the last second, they get to secure their jobs and retirement while avoiding martial court at the end of the war.
Joon-young had never seen this commander before. As a veteran who had been fighting since the start of the war, he not only knew most of the veteran officers in the army, but could also tell if an officer had field experience just by looking at their faces. Joon-young confirmed the rumours once more as he looked back at the commander.
Joon-young gave a rather limp looking salute to the commander, which agitated the commander even further and brought him face to face.
“So you’re the famous Crazy Terrorist, Sergeant Kim Joon-young. I know you’ve achieved some feats on the battlefield, but to think a mere NCO is taking the role of a company commander…”
“I believe I’m currently a Captain.”
“Tsk! Do you think having that title means anything? And why aren’t you preparing for imminent battle with the Japs at this moment!”
As the colonel raged on and on, he caught a glimpse of the white flag the boy was holding. The boy’s eyes met the commanders. He dropped the flag as fast as possible while the colonel reached for his pistol.
The squad leaders reacted faster, aiming their guns at the colonel before he could pull out his pistol. They had been fighting with Joon-young since the start of the war, and they were going to see his intentions through until the end. A newcomer wasn’t going to change their mind, no matter their rank.
While the newest recruits shakily looked between Joon-young and the platoon leaders, the veterans simply laughed and treated it as entertainment.
“Is this a revolt?”
“Those are harsh words, sir. I’m just trying to let the kids live at least, since we’re all about to die.”
The baffled commander shouted, while Joon-young replied casually.
“You should know that desertion is not forgiven!”
“Desertion? These kids were surrendering to the Japs under my orders.”
“Cowards! How dare you run from this war instead of fighting to your last breath for this nation!”
“Those words might be true for us, but they are just children. Using child soldiers… what kind of a joke is this? You forcefully brought them here in the first place. These kids who never had basic training are just baggage. They’ll get us killed instead.”
“You think those excuses will work in the court!”
“Excuses? Then let me ask, why did the higher ups run from this nation? The entire world knows we’ve been labelled as the rebel forces, and I sure as hell won’t let them die as one. Their family won’t even get compensation, since they fought for the rebel army. I guess it doesn’t matter since you still get your pension.”
“Bullshit! No matter what you say, what you’ve done is an unforgivable crime! It doesn’t matter what you’ve done until now! It’s the death sentence for you now!”
Joon-young breathed deeply with a cigarette in his mouth. The smoke filled his lungs, and the children watched helplessly as the smoke escaped out his mouth.
“Death sentence… It is a good day to die. Shit, I don’t know who said that, but I’m sure he’s in hell right now…”
With those words, Joon-young pulled out his pistol and aimed at the head of the Colonel.
“Why do you think they call me the Crazy Terrorist?”
Joon-young’s pistol fired before the colonel could finish his words. The bullet came out the back of his skull, scrambling his brain on its way.
The children screamed. They didn’t think Joon-young would actually pull the trigger.
The battalion commander’s body dropped to the floor, blood oozing out of his head. Joon-young spat his cigarette at the body, the blood extinguishing what embers remained in the cigarette butt.
Joon-young turned to ask the boy again.
“Would you like execution for mass desertion and the murder of higher ranking officer? Or would you prefer surrender?”
The kids had no choice.
They began to cross the bridge, while the rest of the soldiers watched them off with a straight face.
“Oi! You guys better be strong!”
“Don’t give up! You have to live for us too!”
“…We’re not filming a war movie guys.”
As the soldiers shouted their last farewells across the bridge, the children began to cry. Their faces contorted with a mix of guilt and relief. Joon-young watched the scene without a shred of emotion. His tears have dried out long ago. He’s lost too many men and lived through their sacrifices. He soon noticed that the squad leaders made a circle around the colonel’s dead body, snickering towards Joon-young.
“Not as much as you, sir.”
Joon-young smiled at Min Won-hoo’s words. These squad leaders had survived the initial onslaught with Joon-young, and had been following him ever since. They were true brothers in arms, ready to die for each other.
“What do we do?”
Joon-young asked the driver of the transport car. His face was familiar to Joon-young, meaning he had been in the fight just as long as he has.
The driver answered back.
“Which one shall we say, sniper or misfire?”
“How about suicide?”
Joon-young ignored Min Won-hoo’s words.
“Let’s go with sniper. I doubt they’d believe it anyway.”
“Yes sir. I’ll report that the Japs sniped him during the inspection.”
The driver dragged the body back into the car, then drove back to the headquarters.
Min Won-hoo asked as they watched the car drive into the distance.
“Won’t we get in trouble when they investigate?”
“How can they have time for that when the battle’s going to start tonight.”
“But are we really dying for the nation?”
“You retard. We’re going to survive until the higher ups declare surrender. If we die now, it’s all for nothing. Our family won’t get their compensation, if you have any left.”
Joon-young’s family were in Busan.
Busan was destroyed during the initial landing of the Japanese forces. As the urban warfare raged on against the South Korean army, the Japs managed to bring a MOAB to speed up their landing. His family were at the centre of the explosion. The army tasked with defending Busan routed when they saw the mushroom clouds the bomb made. Not even ashes remained for his family.
PR Note: A MOAB is a large-yield bomb developed by the U.S. Technically, it isn’t nuclear so it is cleared for use internationally.
Joon-young no longer had a reason to live on anymore. But he wasn’t interested in suicidal tactics either. He was a machine, ever in search of battles to fight.