“In Korea Far East Command”

A Memoir by Lona Flam Rubenstein

Playing Ping-Pong was not just a game in the basement for me. In fact I didn’t play Ping-Pong, which was a Parker Brothers trademark. I played table tennis.

As one of the top women players in all of North America, let alone the United States, it took me all around this world of ours. The first world championships I attended were in Tokyo in 1956, where I was one of three women players representing the United States.

There was no money in the USA Table Tennis treasury; this trip was funded by the United States military, the Far East Command. In return for this largess, we were asked to tour all military installations in South Korea after the tournament.

A skirmish called the Korean Conflict had split that country in two; it was a conflict in which we, the U.S.A., had participated in in a big way. We had operative military installations from Pusan to Korea’s 38th parallel, the parallel marking the demilitarized zone in South Korea. All military installations were included, Army, Marines, and Air Force — the latter still a separate branch of the service.

I was 21 years old, looked 16 (when I was 16 I looked 21, as luck would have it), and was delighted to go on the trip with the four men and two women I had grown up with since I was 12 and started playing the game competitively.

I was a rubber racket player when the previous year the Japanese and Chinese had introduced something called the sponge racket. This new weapon did most of the work, making rubber racket skills obsolete. Couldn’t handle the crazy spins and the rise of the service as major point-getters.

But I did manage to get myself surrounded by a platoon of American soldiers at Inchon, euphemistically called “Inchon by the Sea.” 

Inchon, about 90 miles northwest of Seoul, was blessed with the second highest tides in the world. On its beaches the American forces had landed their troops in 1950.

In Tokyo, the women’s dress was mixed, with new modern and old traditional. In Korea, our dress was Army clothing. Those were the orders. 

A country with a history of being run by foreign invaders, Chinese, Japanese, Mongols — now came the Americans. We may not have been invaders, but, call us what you will, our military bases were all over the new South Korea, the demarcation line from the North being the 38th parallel.

So having flown by MATS — Military Air Transport — from San Francisco to Honolulu, to Wake Island to Tokyo, I played and lost in the women’s singles in the 1956 World Table Tennis Championships after beating the Korean woman player in the first round. Lost to a Chinese woman who got to the finals as I remember.

However, I had my picture taken with the Chinese team (called Red China by us in those times). Interesting! I thought it was daring. One of the guys won the Worlds that year.

Now off to Korea to fulfill the deal the U.S.A.T.T. made with the military’s Far East Command. Seoul was our first stop, then Inchon, where, happy to be in this strange country, to travel and see the world, I was fooling around on the beach on a moonlit night with one of the guys on the team.

We suddenly heard what sounded like a hundred clicks, which were followed by spotlights highlighting us, shining from everywhere. We were surrounded by American G.I.’s, rifles cocked, cocked and aimed at us.

At that time security was tight. American servicemen were not allowed off base. Inchon was a heavily guarded area, with the troops ready to defend against invaders — and in this case Lona Flam, so very comfortable lying on the sand, with the waves rippling on the shore.

I’m glad they didn’t shoot first and ask questions later. It seemed everyone was enjoying the conflict now that it was over.

So that was where table tennis had taken me: from playing the game at the Washington Heights Y, to the Broadway Table Tennis Courts, called Lawrence’s for its owner from Barbados, to San Francisco flying MATS (the pilots had invited me to sit in the cockpit, which I had to vacate when we approached Pearl Harbor). 

We flew from Hawaii to Wake Island, where there still remained the wreckage of a downed American plane from World War II, then on to Tokyo International Airport, then on to the play in the world championship, and then I had that interesting experience at Inchon by the Sea.

 


Lona Flam Rubenstein, a longtime resident of East Hampton, is the author of “Itzig,” a novel set in Germany from 1900 to 1935.