Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Today’s lesson in being a historical novelist is “Don’t assume anything.”
In my novel-in-progress, I have a character whose older brother has to serve in the Korean War. And because my character is going to talk about what’s going on to his girlfriend (my main character), he (and therefore I) have to know the facts. Because sure as shooting (excuse the pun), if I have one of the following details wrong, someone somewhere is going to shred the book in a review or in an incensed email to me.
– When did young men have to register for the draft? I assumed 18. In this, I was correct.
– When did young men have to go for their preinduction physical to be assigned their draft status? At first, I assumed 18. In this, I was wrong. Initially for Korea, it was 19. Later, they lowered it to 18-1/2 because they needed more men. Tommy (my guy) was still in the 19-year-old time period.
– How long was basic training? At first, I assumed it was the same as during WWII. Wrong. Someone in the government got the brilliant idea to shorten it, just train recruits in “camp life” stateside, and let the officers in Korea train the recruits in combat conditions … while they were undergoing combat. It didn’t work out so well (I wonder why), so they revamped the program for Vietnam. (This applies only to U.S. troops, not the rest of the countries making up the UN forces in Korea. The Brits, for one, had more sense.)
– Where would someone recruited from Illinois do his basic training? Silly me, I thought it was obvious that someone from Illinois would go to Fort Leonard Wood in neighboring Missouri. But remember today’s lesson. Don’t assume. So today I spent more than two hours trying to answer this question definitively. There are lots of written and recorded histories by Korean War vets on the Internet. The trick was finding one that would tell me a) where the soldier was from and b) where he did his basic training. I finally found a site that allowed me to sort by state (Illinois) and by topic (basic training). And I found five relevant video interviews. Turns out that each one of the KW vets was trained at a different place: Camp Breckinridge, KY; Fort Leonard Wood, MO; Fort Bliss, TX; Fort Bragg, NC; and Fort Bennington, GA.
Fortunately for me (or I’d still be searching), one of the interviews was with a man who was the right age (give or take a couple of months), who was drafted just a couple of months after my guy, and most importantly, served in a division of the 8th U.S. Army that actually fought in the battle where I need my guy to be. Which means Tommy gets to be shipped down to El Paso, TX, for training. Yay.
Also fortunately for me, I’ve already discovered how long troop ships took to sail from San Francisco to Korea: two to three weeks. Putting everything together, I now know that poor Tommy will be in Korea fighting in time to be captured during the Battle of the Soyang River.
That’s the other lesson about historical novelists. We have no heart when it comes to our characters’ fates. Especially the minor ones.