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Itaewon: Troops remember a place known for its vices

People pack the streets of the Itaewon entertainment district near Yongsan Garrison.

PHOTO COURTESY OF JAYMES CLONINGER

By ASHLEY ROWLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 4, 2009

SEOUL — The day James Hiden arrived in Seoul for inprocessing in 1986, the 18-year-old caught a taxi to Itaewon, where he was overwhelmed by the tailor shops and sneakers on sale for $8.

"I could not resist the Korean food, and I was fascinated by the sight of go-go dancers," he said. "When you’re 18 years old, you feel the freedom of being far away from home."

Hiden, like many current and former U.S. troops who e-mailed Stars and Stripes for this report, remembers his first visit to Itaewon with nostalgia. For many, the tour in South Korea was their first taste of life outside the United States.

They said the often-dirty, often-seedy bar and restaurant district, packed with soldiers, was where they felt comfortable and where many shaped their perceptions of the country.

Roland Keller lived in South Korea three times, first as a child in the late 1950s and early 1960s and later as a soldier.

He remembers mud paths, filthy streets and animal-drawn carts.

"Bikes and cabs were the only things running around with wheels," he said.

By the late 1970s, when Keller commanded the Army’s Camp Liberty Bell at the demilitarized zone, little had changed in Itaewon, although there were new buildings, brick sidewalks and fewer animals on the streets.

But when he returned 10 years later, the streets were much cleaner, and there was a new four-story department store, hotels and other stores where his teenage children loved shopping. There were also more cars.

"In 1988, the traffic in most of Seoul was bumper-to-bumper but in Itaewon it was always gridlock," he said.

Many remember Itaewon fondly.

"The dollar was worth a fortune back then, or at least it seemed, and the places we shopped had some great deals," said Richard Trupiano, who was 18 when he was stationed at a radar outpost at the DMZ in 1983.

Randy Ford, a retired first sergeant who was stationed in South Korea four times between 1976 and 1995, said he "loved Korea and the people."

He remembers eating greasy mandoo from a sidewalk stand, or chop chae at a restaurant at the bottom of so-called "Hooker Hill." Sometimes, an older woman working at one of the popular nightclubs would give his friends a round of beers for free.

He said he would stretch out on the seats inside Hamilton Hotel’s disco and sleep to avoid breaking the military’s curfew. At 5 a.m., after curfew, he and his friends would buy coffee and a newspaper, then wait for a bus back to their base.

"There was an old beggar we called halaboji (grandfather) and we gave him our change and took him with us to eat sometimes," Ford said. "In the winter of 1980, we bought him a coat."

Prostitution in Itaewon was widely accepted and controlled by U.S. military and South Korean police. Sex workers were required to carry veneral disease cards.

If a soldier caught a sexually transmitted disease, he told military police what club he had been to and what woman he had been with.

"Many times, the soldier might not even know who he had been with, and many of the ‘contacts’ were just, ‘Miss Kim, black hair, slim build, streetwalker,’ " said Ford, who helped check VD cards.

After soldiers located the prostitutes, those who were "hot" or who had forged VD cards were sent to the "monkey house" in Sinchon, where they were locked in for seven to 10 days until they had been treated, Ford said.

Sometimes, Ford had to go to a brothel and sort through the VD cards to find one suspected of having a sexually transmitted disease. The older women in charge of the brothels welcomed him with soft drinks and snacks.