A couple of months ago, I wrote a story for this newspaper's Taste section on the Tootsie Roll. "That homely little candy bar," I called it, "dull brown and sticky, sweet as a pitcher of warm chocolate milk."
It wasn't exactly a shout of praise, yet the story had, in all honesty, to conclude, "No candy is so instantly recognized . . . so much a part of everybody's childhood . . . as that little log of chocolate."
I didn't know the half of it.
"The Tootsie Roll may not be a Top 10 candy bar anymore, but it is No. 1 in my heart," reader Betyan Straw wrote. "For you see it played an important, if not crucial role, in the survival of my husband Charles and many other men of the 1st Marine Division, during their historic break-out from the Choshin Reservoir, North Korea, in December 1950."
The United Nations forces were in a bad way at this turning point of the Korean War. Gen. Douglas MacArthur had sent them into North Korea, storming up toward the Chinese boundary. The offensive went well until seven Chinese divisions crossed the North Korean border and began driving the suddenly outnumbered U.N. troops southward.
The attack cut the lines of supply. A textbook retreat would be executed, but not without many casualties and considerable suffering.
"We were really hungry," says Charles Straw, who stands tall and erect and would be perfect if the Marines ever need a poster for 73-year-old gunnery sergeants.
"I'll never forget the cold," Straw continues. "The rations we carried with us were frozen solid, and we couldn't stop to make fires to thaw them _ or ourselves."
Suddenly, like an unbelievable scene in a children's TV show, planes passed overhead, and the skies were raining Tootsie Rolls!
Almost certainly, it was the greatest candy drop in the history of the world.
"There must have been thousands of them," Straw recalls. "They dropped like little rocks. Frozen. We picked them off the ground.
"After a while, there was a routine. You'd take your bayonet and chop a chunk to fit into your mouth. Then slowly it would defrost, and you'd feel the warmth going through your body."
Straw got through the Korean War and made a career of the U.S. Marines. He retired as a major after 27 years in the service. It is a Marine family. Two sons have been in the corps; one is a colonel. Straw's father served a hitch from 1903 to 1907.
Until a year ago, the Straws lived in Palm Harbor, and every now and then searched the stores for Tootsie Rolls. Now they live in Port Richey. In both areas the lovable old candy log is not always to be found.
"Too often you see bags of little ones with strange flavors," Straw says. "Not like the big ones they dropped on us in Korea."
At this date, the big questions must go unanswered. Who ordered the drop? Why were there no Baby Ruths or Butterfingers? How could the Hershey giant miss such an opportunity?
Tootsie Roll headquarters in Chicago doesn't know. This writer, who experienced the services in those years, knows what a search for 46-year-old military records would entail and has no zest for the quest.
Mrs. Straw still has a letter her husband wrote after the Choshin Reservoir campaign. "You'd like it here, Betyan," he said. "All we have to eat are Tootsie Rolls."