Author: Rolf Margenau

Publisher: Frogworks Publishing

ISBN: 978--0-99761-583-8

Public Information by Rolf Margenau is a great shambling mess of a novel/memoir set mostly in Korea during the last six months of the war and the ten months after—the sixteen months, I suspect, of the author's tour of duty. We follow Wylie Cypher through basic training and into the "53rd Infantry Division" and his job as a public information officer with detours through the stories of a North Korean conscript, an American prisoner of war, and a small unit action that's now taught at West Point.

Given that there was no "53rd Infantry Division" in Korea, the potted unit history Margenau supplies and other internal evidence, I suspect he was actually assigned to the 7th Infantry Division, the unit in which I myself spent sixteen months shortly after the war. Our tours did not overlap, but I could identify with many of the book's incidents. For example, walking in Seoul one day, Wylie meets three young Korean teenager who skillfully strip him of the pen in his breast pocket; I lost a good Parker pen the same way.

So. I found much to admire in Public Information. Wylie's experience of basic training, how he happens to end up in the infantry rather than the Army Language School for which he enlisted, the taste of combat, the routine military screwups, his work as—essentially—a public relations man for the unit with an Army censor reading all his copy, the mud and stink of Korea and domestic chaos when the fighting finally stopped all have the ring of lived experience. 

The book reminded me of expressions and events I have not thought about for years. Someone says: "You're SOL if you think . . ." SOL = Shit Out of Luck. 

In the small unit action: "Martinez saved one of [the dead] Carson's dog tags, leaving the other one around Carson's neck." Perhaps, but my dog tags had a notch so they could be jammed into my teeth and not be separated from my body. 

Wiley is told to show up at Thai headquarters in Korea in his Class A uniform. We didn't have Class A—dress—uniforms when I was in Korea. 

For a radio interview to be played for the folks back home, a PIO reporter asks a BAR man how he likes his job (BAR = Browning Automatic Rifle, a kind of machine gun). "It's itchie bon," he says, a GI bastardization of the Japanese for "number one."

For all the pleasures Public Information gave me, I also found it a mess. It needed a good editor. Wylie's occasional letters home add little to the story or to the character and so are lost opportunities. And while I trust most of the military anecdotes Margenau tells from Wylie's point of view—and that Wylie's experience as a reporter could have framed others—I had a hard time believing the subplot of the North Korean conscript/POW/nephew of a South Korean mob boss, a story Wylie could not have learned directly. 

Midway through the book, Wylie becomes romantically involved with the lovely red-haired daughter of a missionary who is establishing an orphanage for Korean orphans and the bastard children of GIs who could not be accepted into Korean society. Amelia initiates the sex, and, although Wylie has a girl waiting for him back in New Jersey, he embarks on a rapturous affair with her in the orphanage and on R&R in Japan. 

I have a sense that Margenau felt (or was told) that he had to have a romance in his book to make it popular and, rather than write another Madam Butterfly or Sayonara (James Michener's story of doomed love in Japan during the Korean War) and to have Wylie fall in hopeless love with a beautiful, passionate South Korean woman, he invented a beautiful, passionate, selfless American missionary's daughter. 

Public Information is long, 424 pages. The second edition, which I read, "incorporates newly discovered information . . . and incidents reported by veteran readers." This reader would have been happier with a tighter book, one that stayed with Wylie Cypher throughout and limited itself to the incidents Margenau experienced personally or could flesh out as Wylie learned about them directly. If you know nothing about the US Army in 1953/54 and nothing about the Korean War, however, Public Information is filled with nuggets of information. You just have to know how to pick them out.