Having served in the Korean War, Norman “Chubby” Garrett of Powhatan has a few things he would like to say about the current Korean crisis at Thursday’s Public Square hosted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. But he won’t be there because he doesn’t believe he can say them.
“I need to get it out, but I don’t think I could get up in front of a group of people and tell about it,” he told me. “I think I’d break down.”
Garrett’s experience as a member of the Army’s Quartermaster Corps in Korea has haunted him for more than 60 years. He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder — for which, he said, he is still being treated — long before anyone knew the term.
“It was shellshock: that’s what they used to call it. They’ll shoot a firecracker out here sometimes, and if I don’t know what’s going on I’ll jump about that high,” he said, holding his hand about 3 feet off the ground, a leap that would be saying something about the intensity of his emotions since Garrett is 88 years old.
I visited Garrett at his Powhatan County home Tuesday afternoon. He made one thing perfectly clear when we chatted on the phone the first time, and I called him “Mr. Garrett.”
“Call me Chubby,” he said. “My dad was ‘Mister.’”
When we actually met, the second thing that became clear is that Chubby isn’t.
“I was fat when I was a baby, and my father gave me that name and it stuck,” he said with a laugh.
His father gave him something else: a line of work. Garrett’s grandfather and father were well-known local brick masons, and he joined their ranks after the war when nothing else was working out for him. His father told him, “I’ll take you to work with me, but I want you to make me one promise: I want you to be the best you can be. I want you to give it your all.”
Chubby Garrett said, “And I did.”
He and his brothers built homes and churches around the Richmond region, including a number of major projects that included historical structures. He showed me a prize possession: a framed certificate from the Virginia Society of the American Institute of Architects in 1989 honoring him for “Excellence as a Craftsman.”
His father, he believes, would be proud.
However, as Garrett honed his craft and his reputation and raised two children with Bea, his wife of 64 years — they now have two grandchildren and one great-grandchild — he was eaten up inside with what he experienced in Korea. He’d wake in the night and not be able to go back to sleep as he dreamed of things he’d seen in Korea: the suffering of the Koreans he met, the deaths of his Army buddies.
“I’d see guys and talk to them week after week, and then go in there to deliver food and I’d ask, ‘Where’s so-and-so?’” Garrett recalled. “And they’d say, ‘We lost him yesterday.’”
Garrett was the youngest of seven boys; his mother, he said, deserved a medal. His six brothers all served in World War II, while he was left at home, though it became his turn to go when the Korean War came around. He wound up at Fort Lee in the Quartermaster Corps, where he was part of the mission to supply food to the 8th Army.
He was 22 when he arrived in Korea in 1951. About three months later, he witnessed an explosion during the refueling of a truck. The young driver was engulfed in flames along with the vehicle, and all Garrett and the others on the scene had to fight the fire with were two shovels and a small pile of sand. Helpless doesn’t begin to describe his feelings.
“This is what started me on my problems,” he said, showing me faded black-and-white snapshots — and copies of snapshots — of the smoke and flames captured on film by another man in the unit.
The misery of the Korean people — particularly the orphaned children — added to the darkness that seemed to envelop him. He had never imagined deprivation on that scale, and it struck to his core. He marvels at how far South Korea has come in the past six decades, and he knows much of the credit goes to the children in that war who grew to rebuild their devastated country, rising above the doubt and pessimism that shrouded the nation.
“Nobody looked like they had any sense of life at all,” Garrett recalled. “I think the children in Korea got from the American soldiers how important it was to live. It’s something they learned from the GIs.”
And now the country is at risk because of the recent saber-rattling from North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
“I don’t know what the answer is,” Garrett said. “Nobody, I guess, knows what the answer’s going to be. But I know what it could be: an atomic bomb war. I think it’s a terrible situation to handle, and if it’s not handled right a lot of people are going to die.”
It saddens him when he thinks of what might have been and what already has been.
“It’s hell,” he said of war. “To see what people have to go through, people that never did anything to get to that place. All for nothing.”
Prior to my arrival, Garrett laid out photographs and letters and other materials that helped illustrate his experiences. Among the pictures were several of a young Korean boy with GIs including Garrett.
He was about 10 years old, said Garrett, who found him foraging through the garbage pit near the camp. Turns out the boy’s family had been slaughtered, and he was living in the woods with other orphaned children.
“There would be 30 to 40 children,” Garrett said. “They lived like nomads, on the move. The older kids looked out for the young ones, and they had kids as young as 2 or 3 years old.”
Garrett took this boy to the company kitchen, found a can for him, and filled it with food, layering it between pieces of wax paper so that the food didn’t squish together into an unidentifiable mush. The boy happily took the can. He returned later that day with the can — empty and spotless.
“I guess he’d washed it in the river,” Garrett said. “So I filled it again.”
This went on day after day, and the boy attached himself to Garrett, whose friends dubbed the boy “Little Chubby.” For his part, Little Chubby — who couldn’t really say “Chubby” — called Garrett, “Chombay.”
There came a time when Garrett was transferred about 60 miles away to a new post. He hated leaving the boy, but orders were orders. Soon after, a truck arrived at Garrett’s new post from his old camp.
“One of the boys hollered, ‘Hey Chubby! Got something you might want to see here,’” Garrett said. “I walked over, and that little rascal was sitting up in the passenger seat.”
Garrett’s voice caught as he recalled the scene.
“He looked out the window and said, ‘Chombay!’”
Little Chubby took up with a group of children living outside the new camp, and continued to visit Garrett who continued to supply him with food. Other GIs did the same for other children, in effect, keeping them alive.
Garrett said it was “the hardest thing to do” to leave Little Chubby when his tour was up and he was sent home. After Garrett said his goodbyes, Little Chubby ran after the truck carrying Garrett.
“He was just hollering, ‘Come back, Chombay!’” recalled Garrett, who began to cry.
Garrett does not know what became of Little Chubby. He wishes he did.
How often, I asked, do you think of Little Chubby?
“Every day,” he said.