Reviewer Wally Wood: Wally is an editor and writer, has published three novels, Getting Oriented:A Novel about Japan, The Girl in the Photo an Death in a Family Business. He obtained his MA in creative writing in 2002 from the City University of New York and has worked with a number of authors as a ghostwriter and collaborator.
With an extensive background in a variety of business subjects, his credits include twenty-one nonfiction books. He spent twenty-five years as a trade magazine reporter and editor and has been a volunteer writing and business teacher in state and federal prisons for more than twenty years. He has finished his fourth novel and has translated a collection of Japanese short stories into English.
Author: Marnie Mellblom
Publisher: Outskirts Press
The Reluctant Soldier by Marnie Mellblom is an interesting compilation of letters that her husband, Neil Mellblom, wrote her almost every day between September 1, 1950 as he was waiting to be shipped to Japan, and September 3, 1951, when he is home in Havre, Montana.
Marnie was an Army brat and her father was stationed at Carlisle Barracks. Neil had apparently joined the Army to become a journalist, had been trained as a reporter, working for six months on the Jackson, MI, Clarion-Ledger. Assigned to Carlisle, he met 20-year-old Marnie and they became close. When North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, Army shipped Neil to Japan where he first worked on the Pacific Stars and Stripes, an independent newspaper within the Army that covers military news. The paper sent him to Korea where he was ultimately assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division's Public Information Office.
He assures Marnie repeatedly that he is staying out of danger. "Combat reporter" does not mean being shot at. In fact, it is not clear from the book exactly what he was doing as a reporter. Other than interviewing a Turkish general and having one of his stories picked up by UPI (without credit), he says very little about the stories he was writing.
Instead, his virtually daily letters to Marnie describe—more or less—his daily life first as a PFC then as a corporal during the war. "I got a shower today . . . a real accomplishment . . . they don't have a fancy shower here—a tin-and-canvas-enclosed area a lard bucket with holes overhead—and a little Korean boy-san pours hot water in it as long as you stay under the bucket. . . . "
"We adopted a boy today. No kidding, the three of us here found a little guy on the streets and moved him in with us. We checked on him, found his mother is dead, his father is sick, and one ten-year-old brother is roaming the streets somewhere . . . We washed him up, got his hair cut, and outfitted him with clothes. . . " Six months later, the kid is the group's houseboy and working as an interpreter.
"We've been writing stories on combat awards and decorations. I picked up a file on a lieutenant and a corporal who had been together on the same mission. Except for their names, the citations were identical to the word—they stayed under fire and evacuated about forty casualties. There was only one difference. The lieutenant was awarded the Silver Star and the corporal got the lesser Bronze Star . . ."
Now a personal note: Because I was in Korea for sixteen months, I was particularly interested in reading Mellblom's book. The Army assigned me to the 7th Infantry Division just south of the DMZ in August 1955. What struck me was how closely my experiences two years after the cease-fire resembled his. He comments on the dust, the cold, the stink of the rice paddies, the Army SNAFUs, the drinking, the heat, the rainy season (Marnie's letters to Neil were destroyed when his tent flooded), the importance of mail, the food (we said the combat rations we got in the field were better than the powdered eggs, dehydrated potatoes, and reconstituted milk the mess hall served).
Although The Reluctant Soldier contains pictures of Neil in Korea and some shots of Marnie's family (a plus), the average reader would have been helped with a sketch map of Korea showing where, exactly, Neil was writing from. Also, a little more context would help. Neil either does not know what is going on with the war as a whole or he assumes Marnie knows by reading a newspaper and doesn't bother. But few readers will know about the Pusan perimeter, the Inchon landing, the race to the Yalu, Chosin Reservoir (Neil participated in the evacuation from Hungnam Harbor), and the stalemate after January 1951—all of which would help Neil's story.
The book contains an epilogue that adds immeasurably to the story. And for me, the book stirred up hundreds of memories. An interesting picture of the kind of war that most GIs experience.