Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Category: Korea Times

All Along the DMZ — Part I

I just finished Barry Lancet’s heart-pounding geopolitical thriller, The Spy Across the Table, and I really enjoyed the scenes which took place in and around the DMZ on the Korean peninsula. Having been there several times, both as a tourist and a feature writer for The Korea Times, I appreciate those authors writing about events on the Korean peninsula who try to incorporate the DMZ into their stories. It is an amazing, surreal place, “freedom’s final frontier” as one military PSA on USFK used to refer to it back in the 1990s. Inspired by Lancet’s book, and President Trump’s last minute unscheduled trip to the DMZ, which was scrubbed due to fog, it prompted me to share my experiences and accounts of the times I visited the DMZ.

Panmunjom006My first trip to Panmunjom and the Joint Security Area (JSA) was on New Year’s Eve, 1996 as part of a USO tour. Interestingly, the day before I went up there, the bodies of the North Korean commandos who were killed during the submarine incursion in September of that year were repatriated to the North.

What was interesting about going on a tour was that after we listened to a presentation about the history of Panmunjom and the JSA, we had to sign a waiver which said that USFK (United States Forces Korea) was not responsible for our deaths should anything happen while we there. It wasn’t to heighten the tension either. In 1984, an East German tourist on a tour on the northern side of the JSA defected which resulted in a firefight in the JSA. One South Korean soldier was killed. Panmunjom007

Once you leave the confines of Camp Bonifas and head north to the JSA, that’s when things get intense with the concertina wire, minefields, and anti-tank barriers. The day I went to the DMZ it was cold and dreary which added a bit of atmosphere to the tour. Here you can see the Bridge of No Return where POWs were repatriated at the end of the Korean War. It was also across this same bridge, twenty-eight years earlier, where the crew of the USS Pueblo was repatriated in December 1968. It was also where the 1976 Panmunjom ax murder incident occurred where two US officers, Capt. Arthur Bonifas and Lt. Mark Barrett were killed by North Korean soldiers. I was in technical training school at Lowry AFB, Colorado when this happened. Years later, when I read about the murders and the military operation to chop down the poplar tree which had blocked the blue guardhouse as well as interviewing former JSA soldiers who were stationed there at the time for an article in the Korea Times, would I realize how close we were to another war breaking out on the peninsula.

Panmunjom004One of the highlights of the tour is the chance to walk into one of the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) buildings on conference row where military and armistice related talks between both sides have taken place over the years. It’s also where you can “cross” into North Korea so you can go back home and tell everyone that you have been to North Korea. If you’re lucky while you are there, you might get to see an NPA (North Korean People’s Army) soldier peering in to see who is on tour that day.

Although the tour might seem straight out of some dystopian Disneyland with everyone going home at the end of the day, there’s a reason why Bill Clinton called this place the “scariest place on earth.” It was along the DMZ in the mid-1960s where North Korea provoked numerous border incidents which have sometimes been referred to as the second Korean War (in response to the South’s dispatch of two divisions to Vietnam as well as driving a wedge between the United States and South Korea). And from those events, it would morph into other incidents which have reminded everyone of the fragile peace which has existed on the peninsula since the end of the Korean War.

It remains a scary place to this day. Freedom’s Final Frontier.Panmunjom002

Retrieving Bones — Stories and Poems of the Korean War

This was the book that started it all.

It was back in early February 2000 when I first came across this book in the Kyobo Book Centre in downtown Seoul. At the time I was a regular contributor to the Korea Times‘ Thoughts of the Times column in the Op-ed section and I thought that maybe I could do a book review; after all, it was the 50th anniversary year of the start of the Korean War.

This book and the subsequent book review led me on an amazing three-year journey as I “discovered” a forgotten war, just as much as Michael does in War Remains.

I owe a lot to his book and the veterans who penned the stories and poems inside.

Praise from a Korean War Historian

Some more praise for War Remains from Andrew Salmon, author of To The Last Round:

In middle-class middle America, the accidental discovery of a missing veterans footlocker jogs buried memories of the Korean conflict. This is the starting point for Jeffrey Millers War Remains, a novel themed around war, amnesia and remembrance that is published, appropriately, on the 60th anniversary year of the conflicts eruption.

There are few American historians or novelists of the Korean War; fewer still with first-hand knowledge of Koreas landscapes or people. Miller, an American resident of South Korea and former columnist for The Korea Times, is the exception. Having interviewed dozens of veterans, he is as familiar with the soldiers gun-sight view of the battlefield as with the big picture presented in cold war political histories.

Millers protagonist is a just-married soldier in the US 2nd Infantry Division, an ill-starred unit that endured some of the most hideous battles of the war. As his grandson searches for information about the grandfather he never met, the novels switching of locales between millennial USA and 1950-1 Korea carries the contemporary reader deep into this largely unknown but still simmering conflict

Unlike World War II and Vietnam, Korea was never memorably captured in literature or on film. War Remains helps fill that gap. Millers novel casts vivid light on a forgotten conflict in which superpower grappled with superpower on Asias grimmest killing fields, but his real achievement is in the poignant illumination he sheds upon the human cost stemming from statesmens failures.

Book Review and Interview in the Korea Times

Ines Min from the Korea Times wrote a very nice review of War Remains:

“It’s never been a forgotten one for me; not with the lead I still carry in my body.”

Exactly what has or has not been lost in the dredges of time is the Korean War (1950-53). Sixty years later, the battle scenes may not be as visceral for most of us as carrying shrapnel in our flesh — but it remains tangible, emotional and wholly real for many on the peninsula.

Jeffrey Miller, an English teacher at Woosong University in Daejeon, uncovers the horrors of war in his debut novel released late last month, providing an insight into the torrid time.

War Remains follows the tale of Bobby Washkowiak and his grandson Michael, who explores the past in order to find out exactly what happened the day his grandfather went missing.

Alternating from present day to wartime past, the novel unfolds through pulsating battle scenes, personal vignettes and quiet introspection, making use of jumping perspectives in order to create an intimate tale of loyalty, love and livelihood.

You can read the rest of the review and the interview here.

Thanks Ines!

How I discovered a "forgotten war"

I confess, when I came to Korea 20 years ago, I didn’t know much about the Korean War. I knew of the war, but not much. Even though I minored in history, my knowledge of the conflict was severely and sadly limited.

Most of what I knew, like most Americans from my generation, was from what I gleaned from watching M*A*S*H. Two of my uncles fought in the war, but I never recalled them at any time, when the family got together for holidays or birthdays, regaling us with any “war stories.”

What I knew and what I didn’t know would all change that cold day in February 2000 when I bought Retrieving Bones.

If there is any penance for my ignorance, or autobiographical underpinnings in War Remains, look no further than the character of Michael. Much of what Michael does to learn about the Korean War was what I did after I read Retrieving Bones and the other books I read and reviewed for the Korea Times, as well as the articles that I would eventually write about the Korean War Commemorative events in Korea.

I knew when I started writing my novel that I could never really accurately describe combat or know what it was like because I have never been in combat. But what I could do, and what I knew I could do well in the novel was write about what it would be like for an ordinary person to learn about a war the way that I did and the way that Michael does in the novel.

This book is dedicated to….

That was easy.

I knew from the beginning, when I sat down and started writing War Remains that I would dedicate the book to my mother, my eighth grade English teacher, Arlene Gandolfi and Oscar Cortez.

My mother was proud of me when I started writing for the Korea Times in 2000 and went around LaSalle-Peru showing everyone the clippings from the newspapers I had sent her with my articles in them. She was always after me to write a book but I never knew what to write about and kept on telling her, one day mom, one day.

Mrs. Gandolfi first encouraged me to write when I was in the eighth grade at Washington Grade School 1971-1972. It all started with his science fiction story we read in class and some extra credit for writing a short story. I started writing a serialized story about invaders from Mars that Mrs. Gandolfi read in class. I included all my classmates battling Martians and saving Oglesby, Illinois from destruction. Very early on in life, I understood the meaning of, “the pen is mightier than the sword.” Of course, my classmates were not too thrilled when Mrs. Gandolfi gave quizzes on my story; they felt I had an unfair advantage as the author.

Interestingly, Norman Mailer’s first story, written when he was in elementary school, was also about an invasion from Mars.

I first met Oscar Cortez in 2001 when he visited Korea with a group of Korean War veterans from San Antonio. His story about his military service in the Korean War, was one of the inspirations for War Remains. His story could have been the story of any man who was thrust into extraordinary circumstances during the war.

The book is also dedicated to all Korean War veterans and their families, as well as those families who lost a loved one during the war, or who are still waiting for a loved one to come home.

And finally, I dedicated the book to the men and women of the US Second Infantry Division who to this day, still help to keep peace on the Korean peninsula.

It all started with a book

51o8iIGZEJL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_The day I held Retrieving Bones—a collection of short stories and poetry written by Korean War veterans—at the Kyobo Book Centre in downtown Seoul one cold February afternoon in 2000, was the day I started writing War Remains.

As I stood there in Kyobo, debating whether or not I should pay the 39,000 Won for the book, I convinced myself that if I bought the book, I could maybe write a book review for the Korea Times; after all, this was 2000 and the 50th Anniversary of the start of the Korean War. Maybe, the editor would go for the idea. He did and asked me if I could write more book reviews. I said I could. And that is what got me started down the road as a feature writer for the newspaper and covering many Korean War commemorative activities in Korea from 2000-2003.

It’s true, I was an accidental journalist, but for the first time since college, I was writing almost on a daily basis and at the same time becoming a part of history while learning about history and above all, discovering a forgotten war.

In May 2001, I had the opportunity to meet some Korean War veterans from San Antonio who came to Korea to commemorate Chipyong-ni, an important battle of the Korean War in February 1951, which turned the tide of the war for the US Second Infantry Division (2ID). Most of the veterans had served in the 2ID, including Oscar Cortez who was captured by the Chinese on February 12, 1951 north of Hoengsong—east of Chipyong-ni.

When I sat down a little over a year ago to begin writing War Remains, I had in mind that battle. Although the battle itself would not be featured prominently in the novel, it was part of the inspiration.

It’s a good thing I bought that book that day. It changed my life forever.

More praise from another veteran journalist and author

War Remains got some more praise today; this time from Korean old hand and veteran journalist and author Mike Breen.

This is what Mike had to say about the book:

Bobby Washkowiak battles his way through the first bitter winter of the Korean War, longing for home. Fifty years later, his son and grandson come across his wartime letters from the father and grandfather they never knew and learn what happen to him on one of the battlefields of that “forgotten war.” In this emotional tour de force, Jeffrey Miller vividly recreates the horrors of combat and the yearning for closure experienced by millions of soldiers and their families.

Mike Breen is the author of two very important books about Korea: The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies and Kim Jong-il: North Korea’s Dear Leader.

He is also a regular columnist at the Korea Times. In fact, I first met Mike at the newspaper’s 50th anniversary party at the Sejong Cultural Center in downtown Seoul in November 2000.

Thanks for the write up Mike.

I saw a movie and wrote a book

Well, not exactly.

What I mean is that when I sat down and started to write War Remains in September 2009, I saw or envisioned the story as a movie. I knew how the book would begin and how it would end, and I saw these two scenes as scenes in a movie, kind of like bookends. Having never written a novel before, seeing the book as a movie made it easier to write.

Other than a few short stories and some feature articles for the Korea Times, I had never attempted anything quite as ambitious, so seeing the novel as a movie helped me in terms of how I would move the story along, especially with some of the flashbacks.

Maybe those two semesters of film classes at SIU (Southern Illinois University) finally paid off, as well as being a film buff my whole life.

Oh, one more thing: I thought about writing a screenplay of the story while I was writing the novel.

You know, I can see a Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks Korean War movie collaboration once they finish WWII. The Second Infantry Division and 38th Infantry Regiment would be very good units and subject matter for Spielberg and Hanks to cover.

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