The Battle of Turkey Thicket, By Christopher Russell: Book Review

philip hughes grave
This is the gravestone that marks the resting place of Philip Hughes in Arlington National Cemetery

On June 27, 1950 Harry Truman ordered American forces into South Korea. The purpose of this action was to help repel North Korean troops that had crossed the 38th Parallel. It would be two and half months before significant reinforcements would be sent to buttress the small American contingent. By the time these fresh recruits arrived, the hero of this book, Private Philip Thomas Hughes of the 19th Infantry, 24th Infantry Division, had fallen. His demise came just three days before the U. N. intervention and a mere twelve days after his eighteenth birthday. The Battle of Turkey Thicket, by Christopher Russell, offers insight into the chaotic early days of the Korean War and provides an explanation for how young Philip Hughes found himself at the front line in a war for which he, and the United States, were poorly prepared

In writing this book, Russell has done a service to every soldier who ever fought in war. The details of Philip Hughes’ life are often murky. This was a boy who was not born to advantage. He was orphaned as an infant and sent to live in an institution. At the age of two, he was adopted. From the account of this book, it seems that the circumstances in that adoptive home were not conducive to a happy childhood.

Philip, and his brother, Frank, ran away in 1949, when they were teenagers.   After that, neither boy was welcome back home. They ended up in a reformatory, though they had not committed a serious offense. Their mother simply found them to be unmanageable, so she turned them over to the state. Under the circumstances, the military seemed like a reasonable option to Philip. The country was not at war, he would have the opportunity to travel, and he would receive training. His mother did not object.

Philip was sent overseas, to Japan, where U. S. Occupation forces were supervising Japan’s post-WWII transition. It was while he was in Japan that the North Korean incursion occurred. Philip and other soldiers stationed in Japan were sent into combat. These soldiers were not seasoned fighters. Battlefield equipment was left over from WWII and it was not in great shape. Supply transport for the soldiers in the field was haphazard. The troops were cold, hungry and sometimes actually lost in the rough South Korean terrain. Clean water was in short supply, sanitation was “abysmal” and medical care was substandard. According to Christopher Russell, “During the first year of the Korean War, 60 percent of U. S. troop evacuations were disease related.”

Russell has ably managed a difficult task in writing this book. He has researched the scant details of Philip Hughes life and has noted when sections of the book are not supported by the record. Much of the narrative is derived from extrapolation or third person accounts. Russell does not blur the line between what he knows for certain and what is likely to have happened. As a result, the reader is grateful that the story as told can be relied upon.  Still…there is a desire to know more about the young soldier. To Russell’s credit, he does not give in to the temptation to fill in the blanks with a faux account.

I wish everyone would read this book. The Korean War is largely forgotten in the United States, although Korea is much in the news these days. Millions of civilians were killed or wounded during the war.  Hundreds of thousands of soldiers fell in battle.  Approximately 36,700 of the fallen were American.  And yet, the fallen, to many Americans, are a minor footnote to history. Christopher Russell’s book reminds us that the lives of the fallen matter, and that their sacrifice should be honored.

The Battle of Turkey Thicket is the story of an orphan, of a soldier, of an American War. I highly recommend this book.

A. G. Moore September 2017

 

 

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To Climb a Mountain: Growing up in the Canadian West Adventure Amid Turmoil: Book Review

By Jean Forbes-King

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“To Climb a Mountain: Growing Up in the Canadian West Adventure Amid Turmoil” is a memorable book. It brings to life circumstances most of us will never personally experience, such as wrangling with a grizzly bear and panning for gold. The book follows the form of a classic Bildungsroman (novel of personal development), though “To Climb a Mountain” is not technically a novel. It falls somewhere between fact and fiction. The story is based on conversations and tapes provided by the subject, Bill Forbes-King, and is fleshed out in a spirited telling by his wife, Jean. In the book, young Bill Forbes-King confronts and survives challenges that mold his character. He struggles, stumbles and, ultimately, prevails.

“To Climb A Mountain” is not a perfect book. There are structural issues that disrupt the narrative flow. This is not a fatal flaw. The virtues of the book outweigh its defects. As I finished reading “To Climb a Mountain”, I thought of an artist I had recently discovered, Clementine Hunter.

Neither Bill Forbes-King nor Clementine Hunter had the benefit of an advanced education. Hunter worked as a manual laborer. Through her days of physical labor she observed her environment. These observations she immortalized in paintings that lacked technical expertise but that revealed, brilliantly, the world in which she lived. From her pictures, we see her world.

Bill Forbes-King, also, gives an unsophisticated, unfiltered view of his world. Though his wife wrote this book, it is his young voice – adventurous, naive and discovering – that comes through.

Forbes-King began life with few advantages. He never knew his father, a WWI vet who died before his son was born. Forbes-King and his mother leave their native England and migrate to Canada. After years of struggling to support her son, the mother dies while the boy is still a teenager. At this point, the orphan is put into the foster care system. Here he has a varied experience, not all of it positive.

At 17, with WWII raging, Bill Forbes-King decides to join the battle. He signs up for service and is shipped out to Europe. For a good part of the book, readers are given eyewitness accounts of this young soldier at war. His war accounts are some of the most dramatic in the narrative.

Upon his return home, at war’s end, Forbes-King transitions to civilian life with nothing but his wits and survival skills to support him. He takes a series of positions, mostly in the Canadian West, where he meets a host of colorful characters.

While “To Climb a Mountain” could use some reorganization and editing, it is a distinctive and original book. Ms. Forbes-King is a good writer. She offers readers a credible and entertaining account of her husband’s life. I enjoyed this book and recommend it to readers.

 

A. G. Moore July 6, 2017