Jeffrey LewisHonest Johns in Korea

I find it hard to believe that one could confuse a nuclear weapon with a latrine, but during the 1970s anything was possible.

I am teaching a class at MIIS entitled “Security and Arms Control in Northeast Asia.”  The course is structured around national security decisions so that students understand both the evolution of national security decision-making structures in the United States, as well as the most important decisions relating to security and arms control in Northeast Asia.  So far, we’ve covered decisions to use nuclear weapons against Japan in 1945, whether to do so in Korea in 1953, whether to use force to prevent China’s nuclear test in 1964, and whether to revert Okinawa to Japan without nuclear weapons in 1969.

Sometimes old documents and news stories contain moments of surprising mirth. Skip to section 2 if you just want the funny bit.


Last week, we examined the Carter Administration’s 1977 decision to withdraw nuclear weapons from Korea.  In the late 1970s, the United States had 42,000 combat troops in Korea, largely with the 2nd Infantry Division.  The United States also forward deployed several hundred nuclear weapons for use by these forces, including atomic demolition munitions, nuclear artillery (Honest John, 8-inch Howitzer, Nike Hercules, Sargent, 155-mm Howitzer) and air-delivered gravity bombs.  Nuclear weapons for these systems were stored at Camp Ames, as well as Kunsan and Osan Air Bases.

Then-Governor Carter, during the 1976 Presidential campaign, made clear his intention to withdraw all US ground forces from South Korea.  (The Nixon Administration had substantially reduced the number of ground forces and many Americans were uncomfortable about extending deterrence to an authoritarian government that employed imprisonment and attempted murder to suppress democracy activists like Kim Dae Jung.)

President Carter moved swiftly to make good on that pledge during his first days in office.  The Carter Administration openly attempted to withdraw all ground forces, which would obviously include any nuclear-capable artillery systems or ADMs. (The ROK military had some nuclear-capable systems, so one might imagine the warheads would remain behind — but no one seemed to think that was a very likely outcome.)

Carter also decided — in secret — to withdraw the remaining air-delivered nuclear weapons as well. The Carter Administration may have contemplated replacing the warhead with dummies, in order to avoid telling the South Koreans of the withdrawal. (The Carter Administration eventually rejected this plan as infeasible.  “If we have gone forward with the secret pullout,” one official told the Boston Globe’s William Beecher, “one can imagine a private writing home about how he was standing guard in freezing weather protecting ostensible nuclear weapons which were actually sacks of sand. What would have happened to deterrence and our credibility, then?”)

Even today, the portion of the PD-12 that would appear to record the President’s decision relating to the withdrawal of  nuclear weapons from Korea remains redacted (As does the relevant portion of PRM-13).  We know about Carter’s decision because of this declassified memorandum recording Zbigniew Brzezinski telephone call to Secretary of Defense Harold Brown to relay Carter’s decision.

Of course, there we also numerous leaks to the press at the time about Carter’s intention to withdraw nuclear weapons from Korea — including one in the Washington Star that I would like to track down.  As a result of those leaks, reporters repeatedly pressed US officials about whether the withdrawal of US ground forces would be accompanied by a withdrawal of all nuclear weapons, including air-delivered gravity bombs.


It was in this context, that I encountered the following, hilarious exchange as recorded by the Washington Post:

There was a momentary communications gap at White House yesterday when Rex Granum, the deputy press secretary, got the bathroom confused with the battlefield.

Granum was explaining the administration’s reaction to the Senate’s refusal to endorse withdrawal of American troops from South Korea.

A reporter asked about the possibility of withdrawing small tactical nuclear missiles called “Honest Johns.”

“When they withdraw the troops,” said Granum forthrightly, “they withdraw the facilities.”

Later, Granum explained the thought the reporter had asked about latrines, using the slang word “johns.” His response had not been intended to apply to the weapons, he added.

That’s priceless. Granum, by the way, went on to a successful news career.


The Carter Administration faced serious domestic political opposition to his plan to remove ground forces from Korea.  By mid-1978, the US Intelligence Community was coming to the conclusion that North Korea had much larger armored forces than previously thought.  Leaks to the press in January 1979 helped deal a fatal blow to the withdrawal plan.  Carter suspended the withdrawal, pending another study.  That effectively ended the withdrawal process, with Carter losing his reelection bid to Ronald Reagan.

Still, the Army did inactivate three nuclear-capable artillery battalions in South Korea in 1977: the 3d Battalion, 81st Field Artillery, which was the last Sergeant battalion on active duty; the 1st Battalion, 42d Field Artillery, an Honest John unit; and the 2d Battalion, 44th Air Defense Artillery, a Nike Hercules battalion.  Overall, the Carter Administration does seem to have withdrawn about two-thirds of all US nuclear weapons stationed in Korea, leaving only a small number of aircraft-delivered gravity bombs.  (The Army also deployed nuclear-capable Lance missiles in Korea until 1992, but any nuclear warheads remained stationed in Guam as far as I can tell.)

In what is an interesting step, the Carter Administration seems to have sought to reassure South Korea with an unprecedented series of port calls by nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines, peaking with almost monthly visits in 1979 and 1980.  Hans Kristensen has a fascinating discussion of this little known episode in the history of extended deterrence.  The United States eventually removed the last nuclear weapon from Korea following the 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives.

The United States and South Korea have successfully deterred a 1950 like attack from North Korea despite the gradual reduction and withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from South Korea.  That’s a hopeful sign.  The Peninsula’s proliferation record, on the other hand, is less encouraging.  South Korean interest in a nuclear weapons capability appears to have persisted into the early 1980s, while  we know how North Korea’s bomb program turned out.  What that says about the history of deployments and withdrawals is not completely clear, but complexity makes for a stimulating discussion.

The students are now off for Spring Break, but when they return we fast forward to 1991 so they can revisit this decision all over again.


I leave you with a final bit of unconfirmed “lore” about the Honest John in Korea:

This is an anecdote that has remained in certain U.S. Army artillery circles since the late 1970’s. The event’s documentation is nowhere to be found, and its truthfulness is only supported by the question, “Why would someone make this up?”

Here’s how it goes.

The incident, it is told, occurred in Korea, where a U.S. Army unit kept custody of nuclear warheads that could be released to the ROK army in the event of an all-out war on the peninsula. The ROK army had Honest John rockets, and apparently one of the other duties of the custodial unit was to advise the ROK artillerymen on the entire system. At least two U.S. officers were present to watch the Koreans fire an Honest John one afternoon.

The rocket prior to ignition is held secure by three large pins on its raised launching rail or ramp. The pins are painted red so they can be readily seen, but apparently the one in the middle is obscured from casual observation by some of the mechanism and might be overlooked. A failure to notice and remove that middle pin would set events in motion.

One of the U.S. officers gave this account:

“I was sitting there waiting for the rocket to fire, and finally it did. I saw this big cloud of smoke and flames, but I noticed that I didn’t see any rocket coming out of it. I thought, ‘uh oh!'” When the smoke cleared up a little, I could see the rocket was still sitting there attached to the truck. Then, the truck started to shake and bounce around, and pretty soon the whole thing kind of rose up slowly into the air — truck, rocket, and all! It got up about 50, 60 feet and then nosed over, and slammed into the ground. The motor was still burning, so it started rolling and bouncing end-over-end down range, until it finally blew up.”

Other than proving that the pins had a 200% safety margin, since one of them was unfortunately all too capable of holding the rocket on the rail against the thrust of the motor, I can only imagine what went on in the Korean artillery battalion headquarters. I imagine some rocketeers quickly became infantrymen, or worse!

I have never heard of such an event occuring to the 3AD or any Army unit in Germany, but if anyone knows of such an accident, or of any serious nuclear weapon mishap in Germany, please contact me through the webmaster.


  1. kme (History)

    I imagine some rocketeers quickly became infantrymen, or worse!

    Maybe they were put in charge of the johns.

  2. bradley laing (History)

    —minor spelling error: “he” and “the”, see bbelow.

    Later, Granum explained the thought the reporter had asked about latrines, using the slang word “johns.” His response had not been intended to apply to the weapons, he added.

    That’s priceless. Granum, by the way, went on to a successful news career.

  3. Peter Hayes (History)

    Yo Jeffrey.

    I related the “fake warhead” withdrawal story in Pacific Powderkeg. My source was at State at the time and in a position to know, and later published related history on the PRMs involved, which are on our FOIA website, but I am honor bound to not reveal his identity! See chapter 5, p. 73 of the English edition (the original edition is in Korean). Anyone interested can download the whole book at
    I interviewed most of the key players on how Carter’s withdrawal was turned around to write this chapter. He was committed to the withdrawal well before his election. Mason Willrich relates in Adventures Between History’s Pages, A Memoir, p.208, that when he asked Carter even before the presidential campaign proper had begun in 1976 what he would do about nuclear weapons in South Korea, Carter replied: “I would get them out”–no qualifiers.
    Holbrooke told me in great detail how he orchestrated this campaign against Carter’s policy. I interviewed him when he was holed up at some financial firm in NY after the Reaganites took over Washington DC. True to form, he was not modest about his role…but I documented his story from multiple angles, and he indeed was responsible for the turnaround, including a “no leaks to Congress” deal with the Pentagon until they trapped Carter with no exit politically but reversing the withdrawal (the clincher was a meeting with Park Chung Hee in a motorcade, you have to read the chapter for the details).
    Re the anecdote on the ROK soldier firing the artillery unit. I don’t know if that story is true. But I did document in great detail the role of ROK artillery forces in setting up the firing of the nuclear artillery shells, exercises thereof, and the problems that this hands-on role posed legally under the US Atomic Energy Act given that there was no congressionally approved Program of Cooperation with South Korea. In fact, some officials asked me to not publish this material because they feared the illegality would become a political issue in Korea and in Washington. I chose to ignore them because it was clear that some in Congress were aware of this legal end run in Korea. Thus, chapter 7 of Pacific Powderkeg, “Collaboration,” begins with the following quote:
    Mr. Paul: Do we also have other exercises practicing a technique of nuclear artillery or other forms of nuclear warfare with the South Koreans?
    General Michaels: I have been instructed by the Secretary of Defense not to discuss questions pertaining to nuclear matters.
    US Senate Hearing, Feb 26, 1970).
    My understanding is that the ROK forces were to load the nuclear artillery shell onto the firing tube, but an American was to fire it, to try to stay within the law. ROK forces also provided the troops for the security perimeter for the nuclear artillery units.
    Thus, it would not have been the standard procedure for a ROK officer to have fired the weapon, as related in the story you cite.
    The obvious potential for loss of control of such warheads by ROK or DPRK seizure in the field is one of the reasons, I was told, that the US exercised removing warheads by helicopter to ships offshore should a war break out. It was also one of the reasons that the forward-deployed weapons were moved back from the DMZ from 1971-74, after a State Department official flew along the DMZ in a helicopter (in 1971), observed where nuclear units were deployed, and went back and reported to the White House.
    What is not well known is the hair-raising conflict surrounding the August 1976 crisis at Panmunjon. Not only did the White House pre-delegate authority to then CINC USFK-UNC General Richard Stilwell to use artillery on a North Korean barracks if a fight broke out when the US sent in a tree cutting team into the Joint Security Area, but according to later-sacked General Singlaub, they moved nuclear weapons artillery and missiles forward for early use at the same time. (see his Hazardous Duty, p. 371, viewable at Googlebooks)
    From my discussions with the NK military in 1991 in Pyongyang, the 1976 incident did more than anything else to convince them that the American nuclear threat was real. There are many stunning details about this incident in the now declassified FRUS papers at that time…including speculation that the US would strike the North at Songjin hang harbor with a covert operation to blow up a fuel dump…the papers contain the startling statement by “Clements: I like it. It doesn’t have an overt character. I have been told that there have been 200 other such operations and that none of these have surfaced.” (you can see this and related text at:

    That is, ROK-US forces had apparently conducted 200 covert ops in North Korea up to 1976!…maybe the North Koreans are less paranoid than we think, and there was more balance in covert ops in the late sixties-early seventies than we are led to believe in the standard histories that dwell on the North Korean commando attacks and infiltration efforts into the South.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Great stuff, as always Peter.

      Unfortunately, I read Pacific Powderkeg when I was a too young to understand what I was reading. I’ll revisit it. The Carter episode has caught my fancy.

    • rwendland (History)


      After Clements talks about the “200 other such operations”, we have:

      “Kissinger: It is different for us with the War Powers Act. I don’t remember any such operations.”

      That seems to imply the 200 other such earlier operations were carried out by the CIA and/or the South Koreans. And this is the first such DOD operation considered.

  4. Daniel (History)

    The anecdote would be a perfect example for trainers to use in any military setting that involves maintaining high situational awareness (i.e. don’t leave the ‘remove before flight’ pins in the landing gears). Did Peter’s comment do more to confirm the story as legitimate? Hilarious though.. and incredibly lucky that no one was hurt.

    • bradley laing (History)

      A possible anology: back in the 1980s, the Wall Street Journal ran an article about “Urban Legends” circulating in the then-in-very-bad-shape auto industry. It involved an executive rejecting an automobile design, one that would have been incredibly successful for the car industry, in a horribly insulting way.

      Later, I read an account of a horribly angry Henry Ford rejecting a re-designed Model T that his engineers showed him. The similarties, and the fact last Model T was built in 1927, suggested that the “urban legend” was the original Henry Ford incident re-told and updated to a much hated 1970s or 1980s auto executive.

      Could the “Honest John” story be a distorted version of an earlier military urban legend from, say World War 2?

    • Bradley Laing (History)

      From a military modelers website discussing “Military Urban Legends.”

      “One story I had heard which is likely to be an urban legend involves the old Honest John rocket, which was just finally being phased out when I got to Germany. These things were pretty scary to fire as I understand, and the story goes that in this particular incident the crew neglected to remove the hold down clamps keeping the rocket to the launch rail. So when they fired it off, it proceeded to bounce the truck around on its way down range!

      (Anybody ever build the old HJ kit kit back in the 50’s/60’s??)

      VMI Class of 1972”

      –Note: it does not actually say the Honest John Incident took place in Germany, instead of South Korea, but it seems to imply that.