Once or twice a month, I board a bus at the Dongbu (East Terminal) Bus Station in Daejeon for about an hour and forty-five minute bus ride to Seongnam.
It’s my day out, as it were, to meet some friends, have lunch, do some shopping and then come back to Daejeon in the evening. I’ve come to look forward to this little journey more and more the past couple of weeks, especially with the weather getting nicer.
I’ve watched the landscape—of rice paddies, fields, orchards, and mountains change from brown and desolate to green and lush. Just this weekend many farmers were out in the flooded rice paddies planting rice seedlings. Having grown up in the American Midwest and coming from farmer stock (my grandfather and an uncle were farmers) I have a deep appreciation and respect for farmers everywhere who toil under the sun working the soil from planting to harvesting.
At the same, I have also watched this same landscape change dramatically over the years—since the first time I traveled on this same expressway, Highway No. 1 from Seoul to Pusan in 1990—with urban sprawl as cities like Suwon, Songtan, and Pyongtaek are slowly absorbed amoeba-like by Seoul. Traveling north on the expressway the once tranquil and hilly countryside has become choked with towering concrete edifices rising up from the verdant valleys and paddies.
Perhaps one day Seoul—as it swallows up the countryside—will end up like another metropolitan monster, Tokyo.
There’s something else I think about, though. I wonder, as people travel back and forth on this expressway either escaping the city or seeking its fun and energy, how many people remember that the land this ribbon of concrete rests upon and all this urban development was once where a war raged?
That’s something I have thought about a few times when I near the Osan/Songtan exit and think about that fateful July 5th morning in 1950 when Task Force Smith—the quickly assembled American fighting force from Japan—confronted North Korean forces for the first time at the beginning of the Korean War. And then, I think about how the North Koreans pushed the remnants of those routed troops all the way down to Daejeon where more fierce fighting would take place—as reinforcements arrived—during those fierce and desperate opening weeks of that conflict.
Sadly, Daejeon—that would see plenty of fierce fighting as the North Koreans advanced—would also become synonymous with another war atrocity with evidence of civilians being massacred and buried in mass graves during that long, hot, and chaotic summer. I wonder how many more ghosts from the past still haunt Korea’s memory? When will these ghosts and painful memories finally be laid to rest?
There are no memorials or monuments along the way—at least none that I have seen—to remember or commemorate the battles/fighting that may have been fought between Osan and Daejeon. The only monument that I have seen, as the bus speeds along the expressway, is for South Africa’s participation in the conflict—as part of the United Nation’s Command—and their air support with their air force known as the Flying Cheetahs.
I wonder how many Koreans traveling up and down the expressway every day have noticed this monument and have wondered what it was? I know it took me about three trips past it before I finally recognized it and knew that it was a Korean War monument.
There are monuments for all the nations who took part in the conflict as part of the United Nation’s Command, on sites where other battles took place and I’ve been to several of them in places like Kapyong, Suwon, Solma-ri, Incheon, Chipyong-ni, Osan, and Seoul. Many of them are not out in the open like this one, but for every United Nations’ country that came to South Korea’s assistance during the 1950-1953 conflict, there is a monument to commemorate that assistance.
Unless you are a Korean War veteran or up on your history of the conflict, you might not have any idea of these monuments and their significance in Korea. Sure, most people know about Incheon and Panmunjom, but what about Osan, Tabu-dong, Gloster Hill, Chipyong-ni, and Kapyong?
It’s no wonder that the Korean War has been often, and sadly referred to as “the forgotten war.”
Well, not everyone has forgotten it.
I certainly haven’t when I see that monument on my way to Seoul and think about the other monuments I have seen, the battlefields I have walked upon, the gravesites I have visited, as I silently and reverently remember all those who came to Korea’s aid over 50 years ago.
And I certainly think about the prosperity and the development when I see these concrete towers rising up from this hallowed ground. Perhaps these are the real monuments, the real testament of the war that was once fought here.