Lone survivor commemorates fallen comradesDuring a battle in Buryeong, Hamgyeong province, in December 1950, one unit became isolated, lost communications with headquarters and so did not receive an evacuation order. All 160 soldiers with the unit were reported killed.
Choi Su-yong, a member of the unit who had previously been withdrawn from the front because of an injury, became the sole remaining member of the unit.
Now aged 78, Mr. Choi ensures his fallen comrades are not forgotten.
Mr. Choi was part of the Baekgol unit of the 3rd division, 18th regiment, 6th company. He joined the army in August 1950 when he was 22 years old. He was four to five years younger than his fellow soldiers and was treated like a younger brother by them.
He is proud of his former unit, saying, “During a battle in Guji-ri, Pohang, the 18th regiment crushed the 11th division of a North Korean crack contingent and turned the situation around.” He added, “My fellow soldiers fought hard and I was awarded a Hwarang Mugong medal four months after I joined the army, and promoted to corporal.”
However, he was not with his comrades the morning of Dec. 1, 1950, when the order was given for them to withdraw.
“We were in battles together, but I got a splinter in my left leg and I was sent to a hospital. So I lived,” Mr. Choi said, showing that his left leg is three centimeters shorter than his right.
On Dec. 1, 1950, the order to withdraw was given after an operation in the morning, but the Baekgol unit had lost communications with the headquarters and failed to receive it. The unit wandered behind North Korean lines for two months before they were allegedly attacked by communists.
For the last 23 years, Mr. Choi has held a solitary memorial service for his fallen comrades at a shrine near Onsan Industrial Park in Ulsan. The tin-roofed shrine was built by Mr. Choi himself. Every day, he sets fruit, alcohol and incense at the shrine and on June 6, Memorial Day, burns incense on the altar as part of a memorial service. Mr. Choi and his wife, hold rituals to pay tribute to their ancestors here on Lunar New Year and Chuseok as well.
“My fellow soldiers who shared a life-and-death struggle were all dead, and I wanted to lift the guilt of being the sole survivor,” Mr. Choi said.
In 1959, Mr. Choi was promoted to sergeant and discharged from the service.
After his discharge, he made a living by driving a truck and selling things from a street stall, but felt guilty for breaking a promise he had made to share the fate of his fellow soldiers. In 1983, he bought a rice paddy for 3.5 million won ($3,700) in Onsan-eup, Hwasan-ri, Ulsan, where his step-parents lived and built the shrine. He and his wife moved to Ulsan and raised livestock to live and pay for the memorial services.
Although the shrine honors 160 soldiers, the only name tablet there reads “The late Major Lee Won-gye and 159 soldiers.” Mr. Choi remembers the major’s name, but does not remember the names of other soldiers who were senior to him. He said he always called them by their titles, such as “Sergeant Kim.”
“I need to figure out the names of my fellow soldiers who sacrificed themselves for our country,” Mr. Choi said.
The current Baekgol unit said there are no official records of the old squad.
Despite being wounded during the war, Mr. Choi does not receive a pension. He said he would not feel right receiving a pension until after the government identifies his fallen comrades and acknowledges their meritorious deeds.
Near the shrine, Mr. Choi has planted 10 empress trees that are now about 10 years old. Mr. Choi intends to make blank name tablets from the trees if he cannot identify the unit’s soldiers.
“The soldiers were given serial numbers but if the Defense Ministry cannot even find their names, who would want to fight for the country in the future?” he lamented.
by Lee Key-one