I saw in the paper today that Korean War vet Charlie Israel passed away in Hamilton at age 80. I interviewed Charlie for the Missoulian newspaper back in 1997, and thought I would post that old interview in his honor.
Charlie Israel is a jovial man who credits his military experience in Korea as a life-changing event. “I think the service is the best thing to happen to any young man.” Israel was living in Los Angeles and studying photography at a trade school when he was drafted. He was eighteen-and-a-half at the time. “I was very naïve, never been away from home.”
After infantry school he was trained as a cook, and shortly thereafter found himself packed into a troop ship destined for Korea, along with hundreds of other seasick soldiers. He described the journey across the Pacific as a nightmare that seemed to last much longer than the actual twelve days.
Upon embarking at Sasebo, Japan, he caught a different ship bound for Korea. It was then that Israel realized what was in store for him. He laughs, recalling his feelings at the time. “Being a devout coward, I got the shock of my life when they gave me an M-1 rifle to be cleaned. I realized I should have been a better marksman, but it was too late.”
As they neared the front line, Israel got another shock when he saw the artillery shells bursting ahead. “It looked like the Fourth of July with all the things in the sky. I knew I was in deep trouble and wanted to go home.”
Israel worked as a cook for two days before the Army decided that he could better serve his country in the Signal Corps. After a few unhappy weeks digging post holes and climbing telephone poles, Israel managed to arrange a transfer to the I Corps photo unit.
He found himself part of a thirteen-man unit responsible for taking all photographs within a 30-mile radius of I Corps headquarters at Uijongbu, an area that covered the demilitarized zone (DMZ). “We did everything from criminal investigations to public relations and documentaries.” The work varied from photographing prisoners in the stockades to photos of mechanical failure on helicopters and aircraft.
The photographers worked out of a trailer converted to a photo processing lab. “The front of the trailer had motion picture equipment. You could do color, stills, the whole bit.” They also had a darkroom tent, and later a Quonset hut.
Israel covered the building of Freedom Village at Panmunjom and the prisoner of war exchange in 1953, and some of his photos were published in the Army newspaper Stars and Stripes. He also took many photos of the Korean people, including weddings and funeral processions. One of his favorite subjects was the Korean children. Many of his photos show groups of ragged street urchins. “We called them slickee boys, slickee kids, they would try to cut your camera strap, steal your wallet or your watch. There were a tremendous amount of kids on their own, orphaned by the war.”
Perhaps the best duty for an I Corps photographer was when high-ranking generals came to tour the front line. Israel was once attached to four-star general Maxwell Taylor (“quite a gentleman”) for a week to ten days. “You ate very well, and you lived excellently when you were with the general.”
Nevertheless, most of the time Private Israel lived in a tent and shared the hardships of life in a war zone. “I can still to this day remember the smell of death,” he recalls.
“Korea was a great adventure for a young man. It was very enlightening. If you don’t take it as an adventure, and decide to fight the system, you’re in deep trouble.”
Israel has doubts that the U.S. should have intervened in Korea, explaining, “it wasn’t our place to save the world,” but he has no such doubts about the need for the Montana Korean War Memorial. “I hope we finally get the recognition. A lot of guys died over there. We were forgotten.”
Israel continued to serve as an Army photographer for a few months after he left Korea, and today owns the Image Maker, a thriving custom photo lab in Hamilton. His photographs of Korea were on display Friday, June 13, 1997 at the dance honoring Montana’s Korean War veterans held at Minuteman Aviation, Missoula County Airport.