Perspectives on the Korean WarWASHINGTON ― The corner of 1st Street and Florida Avenue lies at the heart of Washington’s best-known slum. In the evening, homeless blacks head to a small park around the corner from the intersection.
There, they line up to receive a free meal from Action for Peace through Prayer and Aid, a charity that began as an effort to ease tensions between Korean-Americans and African-Americans in the capital five years ago.
Pastor Choi Sang-jin, the leader of the organization, prepares to give out the food as soon as the food truck arrives. He calls two elderly black men to the front of the long line of people waiting their turn.
Complaints are heard about Mr. Choi’s favoritism, but he has his reasons. “These two are Korean War veterans. Without their help, we Koreans probably could not have provided this meal for you,” Mr. Choi says, raising his arm in a salute to the two men.
The special treatment for Jennifer Williams, 71, and Roger Redman, 74, began when the charity group launched an aid program on July 25 to help Korean War veterans who are homeless.
“I was talking to some homeless people on June 25, the anniversary of the [start of the] Korean War,” Mr. Choi says. “I learned that many of them were Korean War veterans, and they were living in extremely poor conditions.” He adds that many blacks, partly because of lower socioeconomic status, do not have the time to participate in veterans’ events that are reported on television and in newspapers, and thus get little attention.
Many of these war veterans have failed to adjust to a normal social and family life because of the physical and psychological trauma they experienced after the war, he says.
Mr. Williams suffers from alcohol and drug addiction, as well as a personality disorder, while Mr. Redman has diabetes. The U.S.-based National Health Care for the Homeless Council reports that 40 percent of the male homeless population in the United States are veterans of the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Mr. Redman recalls his experience of the war on the peninsula. Taking part in the conflict as a combat engineer, he met a 10-year-old orphan, Lee Yu-sik, in the summer of 1951. At that time, the boy was wandering around south of Seoul after both of his parents had been killed during the war. Mr. Redman took the boy with him to the base in Yeongdeungpo and stayed with the child until his unit moved to Japan after the armistice was signed in 1953.
Mr. Redman says he cannot try to find the boy and talk about his experience of the war because he is a homeless man today. And yet, he says he is proud whenever he hears about Korea’s development. He also remembers the boy whenever he hears news about Korea.
“I come to this food service program more frequently than the others in downtown Washington,” Mr. Redman says, “because it reminds me of the boy.” He adds that Korean food provides a better diet with which to control his diabetes than typical American fare.
Mr. Choi’s organization to aid homeless Korean War veterans is working to form a network with other homeless support organizations across the United States. The charity’s first goal is trying to locate Korean War veterans and determining their status. It also plans to seek support from the U.S. and Korean governments.
The charity plans to build a shelter for homeless veterans in the Washington area and help them to visit Korea. It also plans to produce a documentary film about their experiences.
“The Korean War was the first war in American history where there was no segregation between whites and blacks inside the military units,” Mr. Choi says. “Thus, a significantly large number of African-American soldiers volunteered to fight in that war, outnumbering black soldiers who fought in other wars.”
He notes that about 3,000 African-American soldiers were killed in action during the Korean War.
Mr. Choi stresses that homeless African-American veterans deserve the same appreciation for their courageous participation in the Korean War as other soldiers receive.
“Although they might be poor today, they should never be discriminated against when praising the American soldiers’ meritorious service in the Korean War,” he says.
Indian former POW guards find a ‘confident, self-assured’ land
“Rich tributes have been paid, and rightly paid, to the Korean War veterans of 22 nations for their dedication to duty and ultimate sacrifice. Indeed, they gave their ‘today’ for our ‘tomorrow,’” retired Justice Brigadier General D. M. Sen, 90, says. “Today, I would, however, like to pay my tribute to the common people of Korea.”
Mr. Sen was speaking during a recent visit by three Korean War veterans from India to the residence of the Indian Ambassador to Korea, P.S. Ray. Mr. Sen was a legal adviser to the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission, organized by the United Nations. The commission, chaired by India, also included representatives from Sweden, Denmark, Poland and the former Czechoslovakia.
Retired Major General H.B. Singh and retired Brigadier General T. N. Malhotra, both 75, joined Mr. Sen to recall their memories of the Korean War and to share their delight in witnessing Korea’s recovery. “When we were here nearly 50 years ago with the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission and the Custodian Force of India, there was not a blade of grass growing in the fields of Korea and not a house stood undamaged,” Mr. Sen says. “It was all devastation wherever we went. Today, the fields in the countryside are lush green with rich vegetation. The skyscrapers in the cities are vying with the hilltops to reach the stars. We see happiness, confidence and self-assurance on the faces of everyone we meet.”
After returning to India, Mr. Sen had no opportunity to return to Korea for a half century. Mr. Singh and Mr. Malhotra, however, frequently come to the land where they guarded and aided many prisoners of war.
“Our job was making sure that all prisoners of war were guarded safely and that all of them had a fair chance to state their destination of choice,” says Mr. Malhotra, who was a captain of the Custodian Force of India. The force guarded more than 40,000 prisoners by Sept. 25, 1953; altogether, 5,230 Indians were in Korea on the custody mission.
Under the Geneva Convention, all prisoners of war belong to their parent country, Mr. Sen says. “But, the Korean War armistice was an exception. In the end, all prisoners had a chance to say where they wanted to go. And their decision was completely voluntary.”
Of the 132,027 prisoners of war, one group of Korean soldiers did not want to be repatriated to either the North or the South. “I remember 22 of them went to Brazil,” Mr. Sen says. “And three of them chose to go to India.” The group hoped to head for a neutral nation, free from ideological conflict, Mr. Sen says, but Sweden and Switzerland, their choices, denied them entry.
“The Korean men who came to India are doing really well,” Mr. Malhotra says. “We still keep in touch with them in Delhi. One of them is actually the president of the Korean residents’ association in India.”
Mr. Singh, who was the captain of an Indian medical unit dispatched to Korea, says his memories of treating ill prisoners of war are still sharp. “Many of them were really nice to me,” he says. “I was their beloved doctor, and they prepared and gave me all different kinds of presents. One of them drew my portrait; another carved shoes out of wood for me.”
Mr. Sen fought for the British Army during World War II, and he recalls an incident that he called “a wheel of fortune.” When he was a prisoner of a war in Thailand, there was a Korean man who had joined the war on the side of Japan. Mr. Sen was reunited with the Korean a few years later, when the man was captured as a communist prisoner of war on the peninsula. “Back in the time of World War II, he was a POW guard,” Mr. Sen says. “And later, I met him again as his guard. What a strange turn of fate!”
The three Indian veterans praise South Korea’s fast recovery from the war. “We see a miracle here,” Mr. Malhotra says. “Koreans are very hard-working people, and we salute the Koreans. They have every reason to be proud.”
Mr. Sen, however, expresses some dissatisfaction with the Korean War armistice. “South Korea’s leader, Syngman Rhee, did not want to sign the armistice, so the South did not sign it,” Mr. Sen says. “The United Nations Command signed it on behalf of the South, while the North Koreans and the Chinese signed it.”
If the South had signed the armistice, things could have been very different on the peninsula. “Probably, the two Koreas would already have signed a peace treaty, ending the Korean War permanently, not temporarily,” he says.
American veterans of the conflict take pride in their ‘special bond'
Byron Yeager was only 17 when he left his hometown in Indiana to join the Korean War to be with his older brother, Myron. “This peninsula was the place where I grew up from a boy to a man,” Mr. Yeager, 69, recalls. “I was able to see what the real world was like. The experience of the war opened me up. I was able to learn so much about life.”
He worked with three Korean interpreters between February 1951 and August 1952 during his service as a combat engineer. “They were really bright and kind-hearted young men. They taught me a lot about this country and the ideological difference between them and the communists,” Mr. Yeager says. “I understood about their feeling towards the communists, but there was just one thing that I never understood: They were all Koreans, brothers and sisters, fighting each other. I never understood why, and I never will.”
July 27 marked the 50th anniversary of the armistice ending the Korean War, and 665 veterans from around the world were invited to Korea by the Federation of Korean Industries to commemorate the event. About 450 American veterans came to Seoul for the observance, many of them saying that this was their first trip to the peninsula since the war.
After spending five days in Korea, the American veterans and their families sat down for a farewell dinner hosted by the Federation of Korean Industries. “Every place that I went was devastated. The country was in complete desolation. Now, the Korean people have achieved a remarkable recovery,” said Robert Marshall, 69, who was stationed in Korea from March 1953 to February 1954. “I was a corporal in the 40th Infantry Division back then. I was stationed in the eastern sector of the Punch Bowl,” a basin-shaped area along the Military Demarcation Line in Yanggu, Gangwon province. Many fierce battles were fought there during the war because of its strategic location. The area also was famous for hand-to-hand combat during the war because both sides lacked ammunition.
“Intense fighting was our lives at the Punch Bowl before the armistice was signed. Patrolling the Demilitarized Zone was our mission after the armistice took effect,” Mr. Marshall said. “I’m so proud of the fact that I had the opportunity to come back here after a half century. I was amazed seeing the development taking place on the war-torn land. Everything was newly built, so much so that I can hardly recognize a thing. The hard work of the Korean people and their hospitality really touched my heart.”
Others attending the dinner with him agreed. “I could not recognize anything, but I remember my days here 50 years ago just like yesterday,” Robert Wallace, 70, said. He joined the U.S. Navy as a medic when he was 17 and was dispatched to Busan in August 1950. At the time, conditions in the southern city were bad, “but things were worse up in the northern part,” he said. “Soldiers also suffered serious losses and injuries because battles were unimaginably fierce.”
Mr. Wallace said the Korean War involved intense infantry battles, and he saw terrible suffering while serving in the neurosurgical operating unit. “It was a war in which there were so many casualties,” he recalled. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Defense, the war on the peninsula was far bloodier than that in Vietnam. During the three years of the Korean War, 36,570 U.S. soldiers died, while the number killed or missing totaled 58,226 in the Vietnam War, which lasted over 16 years. “I had to treat so many soldiers who were seriously injured. I could not count how many of them I treated, because there were just so many,” Mr. Wallace said. “And treating each one of them was a small war of its own.”
Also at the dinner were Herbert Hoover and his wife, Wanda. Mr. Hoover left for Korea in April 1952, just one week after their marriage. “My wife wrote me every day,” Mr. Hoover said. “We still have [the letters] at home. That was what sustained me on the battlefield.” Mr. Hoover was stationed in Cheorwon Valley, just south of the 38th parallel, which is now part of the DMZ.
The veterans all had their own stories and attached individual meanings to the Korean War, but they also had one thing in common. “We have this special bonding,” said William Oliver Jr., a 70-year-old resident of Indiana who served at the Seoul City Air Base in 1952. “The bonding comes from the fact that we served the country and Korea to stop the advance of communism worldwide. And we are proud about the bonding.”
by Ser Myo-ja