Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Category: Selected Writings from the Korea Times (page 1 of 7)

A War Was Once Fought Here

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.

Talk of War still Far from Heartland USA — Originally written in January 2003

The Story Behind the Story

 

One of my more ambitious writing projects was the time I interviewed some folks back home for a special article about whether or not the U.S. would invade Iraq and what the average American thought about North Korea.

 

It was December 2002 and I was home for the holidays. Before I came home I pitched this idea to the managing editor of the Korea Times and he thought that it would be a good idea with the U.S. moving closer and closer every day to another showdown with Saddam.

 

At the same time I wondered what the folks back home in the Illinois Valley thought about the two Koreas and if they felt that North Korea—having already been mentioned by President George Bush as a part of the “axis of evil”—posed a threat to American interests.

 

It ended up being one of those articles that I wished I had spent more time researching and conducting more interviews. My biggest disappointment was when I approached the managing editor of the Illinois Valley’s newspaper about doing an interview and she flatly refused. Whether it was a conflict of interest or she just wasn’t interested I was kind of bummed about that. Maybe I expected her to be keenly interested in how a guy from LaSalle, Illinois was now living in Korea and being a part of history. I guess not.

 

It is interesting to look back—five years down the road—and see what people were thinking about Iraq and North Korea at the time when I wrote this article. So much has happened in between, but we are still in Iraq (and hopefully not for too much longer) and North Korea has threatened to start up their nuclear reactor again—the one they had dismantled and then rebuilt.

 

Talk of War Still Far From Heartland USA

 

LA SALLE, ILLINOIS—As 2002 came to a close, the possibility of a military showdown with Saddam Hussein loomed on the horizon and North Korea’s nuclear adventure sent diplomats scrambling to find a peaceful solution to the crisis.

 

While these two events have been making the headlines in print and broadcast news almost every day around the world, how these events are perceived in small town America tell another story.

 

“The one thing that is typical of this small town and is representative of many other small towns across the country is that the median age of its citizens is higher,” said Bernie Moore, Assistant Principal and Dean of Students at a co-ed catholic high school, “so people tend to be a little more conservative reacting to these global issues.”

 

Located 90 miles southwest of Chicago, La Salle (population 9,796) might be typical of many small towns across America when it comes to dealing with recession, unemployment, and a rising cost of living. As such, most people tend to prioritize their problems and insulate themselves from more global concerns.

 

“People trying to pay their rent far outweighs what they hear about someone throwing a bomb into a car in Israel or the revelation of a nuclear program in North Korea,” said Moore. “Unfortunately, there is a tendency to write these foreign threats off.”

 

On the other hand, in a post 9/11 world, there is a strong sense of patriotism and pride in America, which, according to Moore is a good thing.

 

“I stop and think about opening up our gifts on Christmas and having a great dinner that could probably feed some households in North Korea for months,” said Moore.

 

Nonetheless, with the possibility of another war with Iraq and a nuclear showdown with North Korea over the horizon, America suddenly finds itself at another difficult juncture. As such, the news of North Korea’s nuclear program on Christmas Eve might have surprised most Americans who know very little about this Stalinist country and its infamous leader.

 

“Other than the fact that North Korea has nuclear capabilities and is in possession of nuclear weapons, I don’t know very much about what has been happening in North Korea,” said Moore.

 

John Somolski, who has been running John’s North Star, a family restaurant for 18 years, was also caught off guard when he heard the news about North Korea reactivating a reactor that had been shutdown.

 

“I asked myself what’s going on here now?” said Somolski. “What are they trying to do now?”

 

Although Somolski doesn’t know why North Korea kicked out the UN inspectors, he pointed out that prior to the recent media blitz; he hasn’t seen much news coverage of the two Koreas.

 

“I don’t think people see North Korea as much of a threat,” said Somolski. “Is this going to be our next war? I don’t really know.”

 

Unfortunately, few Americans have a good knowledge of the two Koreas and this perhaps is because of insulation bred in our educational system, or because of the manner in which mass media outlets in the United States put out news about the two Koreas, said Moore.

 

“Many Americans might not even know which Korea is our ally,” explained Reverend Dr. James E. Kurtz, Pastor of the First Congregational Church. “When it comes to the two Koreas, I think some people aren’t even sure which side we are against.”

 

Moore, who keeps up with world events as much as he can, agreed. “There are probably some Americans who couldn’t point on a map where Korea is,” he said with a sigh of resignation.

 

Dave Adrian, owner of a gas station in downtown La Salle is concerned about another nuclear crisis in North Korea, but doesn’t know all the facts about why this has suddenly posed such a threat to U.S. security.

 

“I heard they’ve been developing nuclear weapons,” said Adrian who has owned the station since 1982. “That’s a terrible thing to do, but what can you do?”

 

Adrian, who works seven days a week, finds it hard to keep up with world events.

 

“I just don’t have time to keep up with all the news,” he said as he worked on a car and waited on customers who bought gas. “I read the newspaper and listen to the radio. That’s about it.”

 

Whether or not this nuclear crisis poses a threat to the United States, Somolski believes that with most of the media coverage focused on Iraq these days, the North Korean threat, although a real one has been downplayed.

 

“We feel a little less threatened here in a small town,” said Somolski. “Most people are more worried about what is going to happen in Iraq than they do about North Korea.”

 

Although the nuclear crisis with North Korea is reported by most big media outlets in the U.S., other news from South Korea like the accidental deaths of the two schoolgirls last June or the rise in anti-American sentiment seldom makes it to small town America.

 

“The general public isn’t aware of the implications these events might have on the relationship between North and South Koreans or Americans,” said Moore. “I think when something like that happens, we need a more comprehensive report from the media.”

 

“I have no doubt there will be a war in the Middle East,” said Kurtz sadly. “I think about the innocent people from Iraq who might die as well as the young men and women from our country who might die. I don’t understand why the Iraqi people who live in the darkness don’t want to see the light and rebel.”

 

Somolski pointed out that in talking to some of his customers who are military families, most of them are ready to go to.

 

Moore, on the other hand takes a harder look at America’s role as a world peacekeeper. “There is a strong sense of patriotism and pride in America which is really good; however, this country is just another member of the world community,” he said, implying that the U.S. is not the policemen of the world.

 

“If there is war with Iraq and Americans come home in bodybags, that is bad,” said Moore, himself a Vietnam veteran. “Also a war could hit Americans hard in their pocketbooks. Even the ongoing buildup of forces in the Middle East is starting to have an effect on local consumers and businesses.

 

“It’s sure screwing up the gasoline market,” said Adrian. “Since the first of December, the price has gone up 20 cents a gallon.”

 

Adrian expects gas prices to go up even further if there is a war.

 

“That’s a real no-brainer,” laughed Adrian.

 

Although some people would argue that a war is good for the economy, Kurtz pointed out that this is not necessarily so. “It’s going to do more damage than good,” said Kurtz.

 

“People aren’t even drinking much beer these days,” smiled Somolski. “All the beer distributors have been complaining.”

 

Although many Americans think that war with Iraq is the only way to bring about some peaceful resolve, Kurtz pointed out that nobody he has talked to in this town wants to go to war.

 

“Even though war seems inevitable, myself and the people I have talked to hope things can be resolved through negotiations,” said Kurtz.

 

Likewise, Moore feels America and its allies need to have this thing completely justified before resorting to military action.

 

“I don’t know if that’s a part of the 9-11 influence or that it may even go back to my era of the Vietnam War,” said Moore, “but we need to consider alternative measures of dealing with the people.”

 

All that matters, isn’t gold

The Story Behind the Story

 

There have been a couple watershed years in Korea when a lot of crazy and intense shit was going down but for all the years that I have been in Korea, one year that stands out the most was 2002.

 

In Korea it was a year filled with drama, hope, and protest. And as an American living and working in Korea, it was one of those years that we carried a little more cultural baggage than usual.

 

The highlight of the year was without question that 2002 World Cup that was co-hosted by Japan and Korea. I was still writing a lot for the Korea Times and many of the stories that I did write were about the World Cup—including a series of interviews I had with the ambassadors of countries that had teams playing in Korea.

 

The World Cup was a festive and exciting time to be in Korea, especially when I had the chance to see the U.S. play Portugal in Suwon (south of Seoul). What made it all the more exciting for me was that a few months earlier I had met some of the players and their coach Bruce Arena when they toured Panmunjom (they had come to Korea to play a friendly match with Korea’s national team) and wrote a story about it for the Korea Times.

 

Inasmuch as the 2002 World Cup was another “coming out” party for Korea to show the world how much they had progressed since the 1988 Olympics as well as recover from the 1997 Asian Economic Crisis, things also turned a little sour, tragic, and eventually ugly by the end of the year.

 

When you are an expat living overseas—especially an American expat—you sometimes find yourself skating a little bit on thin ice when your country’s policies are not too well received in the country you are currently residing in. When I came overseas I left my politics at home. There’s no point in being an “ugly” American and calling attention to some policies that don’t travel well overseas. Sure, some people might want to know what you might have to say on a particular issue or policy, but as Shakespeare penned, “discretion is the better part of valor.”

 

There were two incidents at the beginning of 2002, which might not have seemed very much at first because they were not related in any way; however, the fallout from them would prove damaging enough that would ultimately lead to a surge of anti-American sentiment and nationalistic fervor.

 

The first one was when President George Bush came out with his “Axis of Evil” announcement that kind of raised a few eyebrows here especially with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung’s practical “Sunshine Policy” aimed at getting the reclusive and Stalinist North Korea to warm up a little. Sure the North and South are still technically at war, but that kind of rhetoric smacked of the kind of foolhardy foreign policy that would get the U.S. bogged down in Iraq and did not bode too well here.

 

This was followed by the Apolo Ohno incident at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City when Ohno defeated South Korean rival Kim dong-sun in the short track ice skating event after Kim had been disqualified for cross-tracking. Immediately there was public uproar in Korea that it was Ohno’s fault (he did a good job of acting which might have been enough to convince an Australian judge of the infraction and that the U.S. was just as much to blame because the Olympics were held in the States, that the U.S. is a superpower and so on and so on. Blah, blah, blah. The press had a field day with that story here and it also galvanized Internet savvy Netizens who took to the broadband to get the word out that Ohno stole the gold away from one of their countrymen.

 

It got a little ugly when the World Cup took place because the U.S. and South Korea were in the same bracket and would play each other (fortunately it was a tie). Interestingly, when South Korea scored their goal, some of the players mocked Ohno’s speed skating form at the end of the pitch. Of course, the joke was lost on the rest of the world but not South Korea.

 

What wasn’t lost and also not talked about too much were all the anti-American signs at the previous U.S.- Portugal match. “F**K America (written in Hangul) was one of the more popular signs. Also many Koreans in attendance booed America every time the team brought the ball down the field or attempted a shot.

 

(The same thing happened in the 1988 Olympics when the USSR played the US in basketball and the Americans could not understand why their ally’s fans were cheering the Soviet team).

 

Then, right in the middle of the World Cup tragedy struck on one of Korea’s country roads when two middle school students were accidentally struck and killed by a U.S. military vehicle while they were walking down the road. The large vehicle was unable to swerve or stop in time and the two girls were killed instantly. Immediately following this tragedy USFK (United States Forces Korea) issued an apology and gave some retribution (more would follow later) to the family. The story was not “news” in that most of the coverage was about the World Cup. Indeed, the story that appeared in the Korea Times was only a few lines and buried on page 3. However, the story indicated that it had been an accident and that USFK had issued an apology.

 

A week later, tragedy struck again—this time on the high seas, the East Sea to be exact when a North Korean naval vessel attacked a South Korean patrol boat killing eight ROK (Republic of Korea) sailors. The timing couldn’t have been worse—the World Cup semifinals. It was almost as though North Korea had deliberately planned to upstage the World Cup by attacking the South Korean patrol boat.

 

What happened next was both surreal and absurd. There was some public outcry over the naval battle, but not as much as the outcry over the deaths of the two middle school students. After much of the World Cup fervor had begun to dissipate and things got back to normal, that story was front-page news. People who paid no attention to the deaths of these two young girls back in June now demanded an apology and retribution as well as a revision of the SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement)—an agreement that defines the legal position of a visiting military force deployed in the territory of a friendly state with provisions for how the authorities of a visiting force may control members of that force and the amenability of the force or its members to the local law or to the authority of local officials.

 

By November and December this would escalate into a frenzy of anti-American sentiment, candlelight vigils (for the deaths of the two middle school girls), protests outside the U.S. Embassy in downtown Seoul, flag burnings, and even prompted some restaurant owners in Seoul to post signs forbidding American customers.

 

Looking back on 2002, I think Bush’s Axis of Evil reference in his State of the Union Address and Ohno’s acting skills at the Winter Olympics riled up people enough and ruffled just enough feathers for many people to become a little more vocal and later to take to the streets. Little did anyone know at the time that this would be the beginning of a different kind of a protest movement in Korea—one that started on the Internet and ended on the streets of Seoul. It was this kind of Internet grassroots movement—along with the candlelight vigils and street protests that played a key role in getting Roh Moo-hyun elected president in 2002.

 

I had a feeling something was up after these two events that inspired me to write this Op-Ed piece. Little did I know just how much of what I alluded to in this Op-Ed piece would ring true a few months later.

 

 

All That Matters, Isn’t Gold

 

I knew I was in trouble when the driver of the taxi that I got into this past weekend in downtown Seoul found out I was from America.

 

“That short-track race was terrible,” the driver said in passable English.

 

Here it comes, I thought. I am going to have to defend the honor of my country because of some so-called controversial call and subsequent disqualification of a Korean skater for an Olympic sport that I could really care less about.

 

“Kim dong-sun was the winner,” said the cab driver. “He should have won the medal, not the American.”

 

I was in no mood for any great debate about who was at fault and who was not, so I nodded silently and stared out the window as the taxi passed the U.S. Embassy where riot police stood poised for trouble and a coterie of photographers milled around waiting for a story. Perhaps another demonstration against the U.S. for having something to do with the outcome of that questionable race.

 

Yes, I’ve seen that footage over and over on television; read all the reports and articles in the local press and on the Internet, and yes it probably wasn’t the cleanest of races. If anyone is to blame it’s the Australian referee, but one gets the impression that the Americans were somehow behind it all. It’s a time like this when it’s tough being an American living overseas. We carry enough historical and cultural baggage to begin with. Now this.

 

Okay, to be fair there was that controversial first race when Apolo Ohno might have bumped one of the Korean speed skaters. And maybe Ohno should be in line for an Academy Award for his great job of acting after the alleged infraction by Kim. I agree that Kim’s disqualification is a bitter pill to swallow here in Korea, but it prefaces a much larger problem that if not checked is going to get way out of hand even though some might believe that it has already.

 

Immediately after the race, as reported here and abroad, there have been numerous reports of Ohno receiving email death threats as well as netizens calling for the boycott of U.S. goods, even calls for South Korea to pull out its bids for the controversial FX fighter. There were even threats that the U.S. will pay dearly when the U.S. team comes here to play during the 2002 World Cup.

 

Granted these are just a handful of email threats and quotes in the local papers and in no way indicative of what all Koreans feel. These email messages could just be from kids with nothing better to do on their school break. However, it’s still being reported and talked about around the water cooler at work or at the supper table. Even in taxis.

 

Like I said, with all this baggage we carry as Americans living overseas, maybe I’m reading more into this than I probably should: a rise in anti-American sentiment. Nonetheless, living here in Korea you kind of expect this anti-American sentiment from time to time here in Korea especially with 37,000 U.S. service members in your backyard. On the other hand, it worries me that some people are maybe blowing this whole short-track thing out of proportion and at the same time calling attention to a more serious problem.

 

What happened on the ice in Salt Lake City in some ways encapsulates the wave of anti-American sentiment here: from the controversy of new apartments on Yongsan and the failure of USFK to turn over Andrew McFarland to Korean authorities to recent claims about more Korean War atrocities committed by U.S. service members, the controversial missile defense shield, and President Bush’s comment about an “axis of evil.”

 

(For the record, just once I wish someone would get this McFarland story right: he did not “dump” chemicals into the Han River directly, he poured them down a drain. By the time these chemicals reached the Han they had been treated twice both by U.S. and ROK sewage treatment facilities and posed no threat to the environment. Gee, you’d think the guy drove down to the Han late at night with a couple of jugs of the formaldehyde to surreptitiously commit some evil act of mortuary espionage!)

 

Even though I have lived in Korea for over 11 years, I don’t know what to make of this current wave of anti-American sentiment. To be honest, it has gotten me a little worried. After September 11 when the world stood by the United States in her hour of need and mourned along with the U.S. the loss of thousands of innocent civilians from the U.S. as well as other countries, the world for one shining moment seemed united. Six months later, it doesn’t seem that way any more.

 

Looks like everything is getting back to normal again.

 

Of course President Bush probably didn’t help things much here with his State of the Union Address last month. First, he refers to North Korea as an “axis of evil,” and the next thing you know you’ve got people demonstrating down in front of the American Embassy because he might have offended their brethren in the North. Granted Bush’s choice of words might have played well in Washington, but here in Seoul they piqued a different kind of response. Maybe this hard-line stance works with members of the U.S. Congress, but it does not bode well for most Koreans. Still, it’s not like Bush was pushing both Koreas to the brink of another war because he’s feeling a little cocky with his war against terrorism.

 

However to play the Devil’s Advocate for a bit, since the historic summit in Pyongyang in 2000 has the North been really keen on reciprocating the peace gestures made by the South? What more does the South have to do? What’s it going to take to convince the Dear One that the gig is up and that it is time to cash in his chips and get with the program?

 

I want Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy to work just as much as the next guy, but what has the North really showed to the South? I would love for President Kim to finish off his presidency with a bang and not a whimper, but the clock is ticking and the North is still trying to play hardball with the rest of the world.

 

So, President Bush comes to town and as expected people took to the streets. There were a couple of demonstrations against this visit as expected. But you know, I didn’t hear about any movements in America to boycott Korea goods, or deny Koreans visas to come to America because of the young lad who climbed up on the statue of Admiral Yi and burned the American flag. Nor do I believe that act is representative of how all Koreans feel. Likewise, I didn’t hear of any other movements against South Korea when some other feisty youths, misguided in their nationalistic fervor decided to take over the AmCham office.

 

This brings me back to Kim and Ohno. Yes, it was an unfortunate call, but it’s time to move on. I don’t care if Kim is guilty of cross-tracking, if Ohno did a good acting job, or if the Australian referee needs a new pair of glasses. These are athletes and not politicians. It’s wrong to make some international incident out of a questionable call in an athletic event, which is supposed to promote the betterment of the human spirit.

 

South Korea has bigger things to think about.

 

With the World Cup rapidly approaching and Korea the focus of international attention, it’s important to turn down the nationalistic zeal a notch or two. Let the referees and officials do their jobs and avoid these international incidents or public outcry if things don’t go as planned on the playing field. Likewise, it’s important to act responsibly in the stands and out: remember, the whole world is watching. Above all, remember the spirit of the sport, not “us against them.” If not, I pity the U.S. team if they happen to beat Korea as well as the national embarrassment that could follow here.

 

In the meantime, to play it safe, I might be better off telling taxi drivers that I am from Canada or England.

 

Culture Shock?

The Story Behind the Story

 

In January 1999 I started to make monthly and bimonthly contributions to the Korea Times, the oldest (but sadly, not most read) English-language newspaper in Korea.

 

Although I had done a creative writing MA thesis in 1989 at Western Illinois University (Macomb, Illinois) I had only written a few essays before I started contributing to the Korea Times—an essay for the EFL Gazette about English Language teaching in Korea and two Op-Ed pieces for the Korea Herald (Korea’s other and more widely read English-Language newspaper). Not exactly what you would call a prolific writing career for someone who loved to write.

 

When I finally got around to writing in 1999, I wrote about what I knew best: my life in Korea and what it was like living and teaching here. A lot of expats end up doing this after they have been here for awhile. Some have something to say; others want to rant and rave about everything they despise about being overseas in the hope that someone will either rescue them or tell them to shut up.

 

In my case, it was time to start writing again. Sometimes you just need to experience a bit of life and get knocked around and down a few times to have something to write about.

 

People have often asked me, “don’t you regret having waited so long to write?” Sometimes I do because I should have spent all those years perfecting my craft by writing more. However, maybe I needed some time to find my voice. I thought I had found my voice in 1989; in 1999 I was still looking for it. I think I have found it now because I am comfortable with what I am writing. I’ve always been, to paraphrase one of my favorite writers Thomas Pynchon, “somewhat of a slow learner at times, whether it has been affairs of the heart or writing.”

 

The bottom line is that it has just taken me awhile to get things right. I am still learning and writing every day because I love writing and I love sharing what I write with other people. If I can touch at least one person’s life every day with something I have written I feel grateful for the gift The Lord has given me.

 

This essay first appeared in The Korea Times on April 10, 1999. It seems a bit dated in terms of my writing style now and what I would go on to write about, but it is interesting to look back at what I was writing about almost 10 years ago.

 

This was an essay for the Op-Ed page. In this Op-Ed piece I am reflecting about what it had been like living in Korea for almost 10 years. I would return to this same idea a few times writing about popular culture in Korea as well as some of the idiosyncrasies of Korean culture I had experienced over the years.

 

 

Culture Shock?

 

When you end up living in Korea for as long as I have, you are prone to notice more of the peculiarities and oddities of everyday life. At the same time, the longer I stay here, all of those anomalies, habits, and trappings and the like become more normal for me. What might have once been a case of “culture shock” has become the accepted norm for me in Korea.

 

 

Culture Shock. We’ve all experienced it in many forms and varieties at one time or another. For some, it poses no quandary and is easily dealt with; for others, it could have a negative impact and poison one’s experiences with a foreign culture.

 

 

Even though you can read up on as much as you can on a new culture, you’re still likely to be surprised when you are finally immersed in it. Whether you’re in a country for a short time or for much longer, the extent of one’s culture shock is proportionate to not only how much you do know and don’t know, but also how well you adapt.

 

 

Language barriers, food, shopping, and transportation might engender initial culture shock, but can easily be mastered with time. However, it’s the oddities and other anomalies of daily life, which might generate the most culture shock.

 

 

Despite Korea’s allure and charm, there were some things about living here that took me awhile to get accustomed to: the pushing and shoving, the ppali ppali (hurry, hurry) syndrome that pretty much pervades throughout the society, the “vomit landmines” on sidewalks and spitting in public.

 

 

Others, from the traditional way of pouring drinks, cutting food with scissors, to women covering their mouths when they laughed or the misuse of English on clothes and signs were peculiar, yes, but innocuous cultural underpinnings to say the least.

 

 

On the contrary, I have often wondered, “what Koreans might find odd or peculiar about America?”  I’m sure that many Koreans are just as astonished and perplexed with some of our customs, habits, and quirks. Perhaps such Americanisms like blowing one’s nose in public, “going Dutch,” tipping, kissing in public, and living together instead of getting married might evoke similar bewilderment. On a personal note, back in the States, smothering my scrambled eggs or omelets in ketchup may prompt some raised eyebrows.

 

 

Sometimes what might have been considered culture shock, can in the long run, impart some redeeming value. I’ve heard from Korean friends who have traveled or lived in the States that they missed some of the things they first thought was unusual—like saying “excuse me” in public if you bump into someone—when they’ve returned to Korea.

 

 

Unfortunately, not everyone views culture shock as something that is part of the overall experience of living in a new culture and learning to be tolerant and open-minded. Too often, it leaves the incorrigible with a skewed perception of their experience in a foreign country. Part ignorance, part ethnocentricity, the combination of the two makes for a dangerous concoction.

 

 

Sometimes this dangerous concoction rears its ugly head in the guise of letters to the editor, or essays in the English-language newspapers filled with bitter denunciations and diatribes from the disillusioned and the disenfranchised. Maybe it’s just letting off some steam, but more times than not it’s criticizing life in Korea for one thing or another, and ultimately, intimidating how Korea doesn’t size up to the writer’s preconceptions and expectations of what life should be like here.

 

 

Over the years there has been a plethora of these essays and letters to the editor. Some of my favorites include the one expatriate who complained about such things as not having enough hot water and threatened to write a book exposing all that is wrong with Korea. Then, there was the one disillusioned soul who complained that Korea was too Western. I guess the writer expected life in Korea to be way the way it was during the Choson Dynasty.

The Accidental Journalist, Part 23 — The Inchon Landing Commemorated, Sept. 15, 2000

The Story Behind the Story

 

Not even a typhoon could keep me from a story.

 

That’s almost what happened on September 15, 2000 when I went to Inchon (now spelled Incheon) to attend a ceremony to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Inchon Landing/Invasion. The peninsula was being battered by a typhoon (another typhoon had literally washed out another commemorative ceremony the week before) and I was going to have to fight both the elements and an early deadline if I wanted to cover this event.

 

Even though I had covered a few events already that past summer and had even been to Panmunjom for two stories, I was still pretty much on my own when it came to getting to these commemorative events and ceremonies. In other words, I had to take either a taxi, bus, or in this case a subway from Seoul to Incheon. And once I got there, I would again be on my own because I was not part of the “press pool.” To be sure, the Marines’ Public Affairs Officer in charge of this event didn’t even know who I was—that made getting in a little more difficult. Once again, I was “crashing” an event just so I could get a story.

 

Fortunately, I was not traveling to Incheon alone. I was able to have the photographer from the Korea Times accompany me to take photos and also help me find the auditorium where the ceremony had been moved at the last minute because of the typhoon. Had he not come along, I probably would have had a more difficult finding the venue and might have missed it entirely.

 

It had been raining a lot all day and the rain and wind just were not going to let up at all. It was a good thing we did take the subway because the traffic from Seoul to Incheon would have been horrendous. As it was, it only took us around one hour from the time we left the Korea Times office in downtown Seoul until we got to Incheon (the venue was only a 15-minute walk from the subway station).

 

The rain just kept on coming down. Although the rainy reason or changma as it is called in Korea takes place in late June or early July, August and September can be just as wet, especially when the peninsula is hit with a typhoon. The week before I was supposed to fly down in a Chinook helicopter with the “press pool” to cover the Battle of Tabu-dong—a major battle that was part of the break out from the Pusan Perimeter—but a typhoon had grounded the helicopter and no other means of transportation had been arranged.

 

Battling the typhoon was one thing; an early deadline was other thing I was going to have to battle once the ceremony was over. There wouldn’t be much time to interview veterans after the ceremony as well as attend a press conference. I would have to get a couple of quotes and then hurry back to the Korea Times. It was either file a straight news story or write a longer feature story—in this case it would have to be the shorter news story.

 

What mattered most to me though was that I was going to be writing about another commemorative event. That meant a lot to me as did meeting some of the veterans who had returned to Korea. At the same time, it was a learning opportunity for me. With each article I wrote and each veteran I talked to and shook hands with I was connecting with history and remembering a forgotten war and those who fought in it.

 

 

Inchon Landing Commemorated

 
 
It would be planned and coordinated as Operation Chromite, but the events that passed into history 50 years ago would be better remembered as the Inchon Landing. Yesterday in Inchon, rain could not dampen the spirits of the throng of veterans, dignitaries, and guests who gathered to remember that heroic, “lustrous” amphibious landing of 50 years ago. It would be a ceremony filled with remembrance and hope for Korea’s future.

 

In his address to the audience, Inchon Mayor Choi Ki-sun welcomed the veterans and thanked them for their “courage at the Inchon Landing Operations 50 years ago.” He also touched on the changes that have occurred on the peninsula since last June. “The door is opening for a new era and the future of the Korean peninsula is brighter,” noted Choi.

 

Likewise, in his remarks to the audience Cho Yung-kil, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff noted that “in this light, the sacrifice and dedication of the veterans were most truly valuable, and it is through their sacrifice that the Republic of Korea exists today in freedom and prosperity.” Chairman Cho also reaffirmed the need to have this nation “move toward peace beyond war” and to “move toward unification beyond division.”

 

Many of the veterans in attendance were overwhelmed with the ceremony. For some it was their first trip back; for others it was their second or third time.

 

Joe Giovanni Perata was one of the first to hit the beach when he landed with the 1st Marine Division on Red Beach. “It was weird,” recalled Perata. “You never realize what you’re getting into until you’re in it.”

 

Many vets expressed how much Korea had changed. “They did an amazing job with their country,” commented Joseph Ferriter, who landed at Blue Beach. As for the landing, Ferriter noted that it was “so eerie to come up over the ladders.”

 

For most veterans, Inchon was just beginning. There would be the liberation of Seoul and the move north. Harry Burke who would end up fighting around the Chosin Reservoir, “felt great” to be back here for the ceremonies.

 

Bill Boldenweck, who has made it back to Korea five times, wouldn’t have missed the ceremony for anything in the world.

 

“I would have swum back here,” he chuckled.

 

Yesterday’s emotional ceremony in Inchon not only remembered the heroics and sacrifices of that great amphibious landing 50 years ago, but also touched on the hope for the Korean peninsula in the future.

The Accidental Journalist, Part 21 — War Remains, The Long Journey Home

The Story Behind the Story

After I had written three articles on the recovery of war remains from the Korean War I was curious about what happened to those remains once they left Korea and went to Hawaii for identification?

That’s when I came up with the idea for an article about the Central Identification Laboratory Hawaii (CILHI) and how the remains are identified. I was fortunate back in 2001 when I was writing a lot about the Korean War Commemorative Events to get a lot of help from Lee Ferguson who worked for the Eighth Army’s Public Affair’s Office. I owe a lot to her for setting up interviews, attending events, as well as helping me contact outside agencies like CILHI.

Although not one of my better articles, I was really glad that I did write it. Sadly, I should have known my audience. Even though I was writing for one of the three English-language newspapers in Korea, I should thought about a different market. I should have been sending all these articles to magazines and newspapers in the States. However, I just had too much on my plate with teaching as well as writing a couple of articles each week.

This was orginally written in October 2001

War Remains
The Long Journey Home

For U.S. service members listed as missing in action on a battlefield halfway around the world, once their remains have been found, their long journey home starts with a laboratory in Hawaii.

Since 1976, the Central Identification Laboratory Hawaii (CILHI) has been committed to identifying the remains of service members from battlefields around the world—from Europe, Papua New Guinea and China to Vietnam, Laos and North Korea.

More importantly, CILHI brings hope to those families still waiting to bring their loved ones home. Using the latest technology in DNA testing, as well as other methods, CILHI has ensured for the most part, that once remains are found the chances of the identification are high.

“The techniques used for identification of service members since WWII has definitely evolved, incorporating the latest state-of-the-art technology such as computers and analytical software. The most dramatic change has been the introduction of mitochrondrial DNA analysis, which can be used to determine a maternal line,” explained Dr. John Byrd, laboratory manager. “This form of DNA preserves well in the bones. CILHI started using mtDNA sequence data in identifications in 1992. While the technology in its earlier years had a few problems, the technology now is better than ever. We have used mtDNA sequence data to aid in the identification of about 45 percent of our cases during the last five years.”

According to Ms. Ginger Couden, Public Affairs Officer for CILHI, the history of CILHI dates back to the 1840s when the U.S. government made concerted efforts to recover and properly inter its service members killed in war. During World War II, several temporary Army identification laboratories were established using physical anthropologists and anatomists to recover and identify remains of service members.

In 1951 these laboratories were dissolved. With the onset of hostilities on the Korean peninsula, the U.S. re-established a central identification unit in Kokura, Japan to process United Nations Forces war dead. This laboratory was temporary and closed in 1956.

During Vietnam, two U.S. mortuaries operated in South Vietnam identifying remains of service members. After the withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Vietnam, the mortuaries closed in 1972 and 1973. This is when the U.S. Army established the Central Identification Laboratory, Thailand. The CIL-THAI’s mission was to continue to search, recover and identify U.S. service members killed in Indochina.

Finally, 25 years ago this past May, the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory, at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii was established. With the establishment of CILHI, its mission expanded. The mission of CILHI became to search, recover and identify all unaccounted for U.S. service members from past wars.

In addition, CILHI also performs humanitarian missions identifying remains from recent disasters. In the wake of the tragedies that hit New York and Washington D.C., CILHI is ready to lend assistance if called upon.

“We are ready to deploy if called upon for assistance,” said Couden. “We have not been requested to assist as of now.”

The process for remains identification can begin any number of ways, from efforts of a CILHI search and recovery team or “official unilateral turnover by a foreign government or through turnover by a third party such as a refugee.” Upon delivery to CILHI, they are accessioned and analyzed for identification potential. Next, the forensic anthropologists and odontologists attempt to establish individual identities using standard, recognized forensic techniques and procedures. During this stage of the process, the scientists examine the remains and employ state-of-the-art computers, microscopes, and radiographic equipment to determine and document all dental and anthropological data.

The Laboratory Section staff consists of 29 forensic anthropologists and four forensic odontologists, all with advanced degrees and training, and several are board certified in their respective forensic specialties.

Although mitochrondrial DNA (mtDNA) technology has been proven to be an invaluable tool in the identification process of remains, dental X-ray analysis continues to be the mainstay of the identification process. Dental remains are examined by one of the forensic odontologists who X-rays the remains and then carefully documents restorations or unusual characteristics.

Next, using the Computer Assisted Post-Mortem Identification (CAPMI) System—a database program that contains the dental records of many U.S. service members whose remains have not been recovered, these findings are entered for possible matches. The CAPMI search engine compares the general characteristics of the recovered teeth against the database and generates a list of most-likely candidates for a match. If any matches are found, the odontologist then requests the original dental records from the Casualty Data Section for the comparison.

In addition to DNA testing and dental analysis, forensic anthropologists also examine the skeletal remains. “Working ‘blind,’ (i.e., with no prior knowledge of the physical characteristics or even the number of individuals believed to be involved in the case/incident) the anthropologist derives a biological profile for the remains.” During this physical analysis of the remains, such factors like age, race, sex, muscularity, stature, indication of antemortem and perimortem injuries and any characteristic abnormalities are noted. Once this profile is completed, the anthropologist compares these characteristics with the known, recorded features of the missing individual supplied by the CILHI Casualty Data Section.

Throughout the identification process, the staff can consult or request assistance from several agencies, including the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, and the Smithsonian Institution.

When the analysis is completed, the anthropologists discuss their findings to the Scientific Director, a board-certified forensic anthropologist. The Scientific Director then combines these findings with the background research supplied by Casualty Data analysts and the result of other investigations, such as wreckage and/or life-support equipment analysis. Viewed within this total framework of data, the Scientific Director finally decides whether or not the evidence will support identification for review.

“Once the remains have been identified by our laboratory and signed off by the Laboratory Scientific Director, a report is delivered to the Service Casualty Office. After review, a casualty officer contacts the family member listed as next of kin,” explained Couden. “The family member is then fully briefed on the identification process, how we came to the results, the search and recovery efforts involved in recovering the remains and any other information available.”

Despite many breakthroughs in DNA testing, there are still some remains that cannot be identified. Nonetheless, as Couden pointed out the policy at CILHI is to retain these unidentified cases pending either the advent of new techniques and methods or the receipt of additional information that would lead to identification.

“There are remains that we have not been able to identify given existing technology,” explained Couden. “For example, many Vietnam-era cases received in the laboratory in the 1980s were not identifiable given the technology available at that time. Since then, however, DNA technology (first used by the CILHI in 1992) has allowed for many of those cases to be successfully resolved. To this end, the CILHI is actively engaged in research on a variety of topics that it is hoped will lead to future identifications.”

The search for the remains of service members can begin a number of ways. The search begins with an analysis where CILHI develops and reviews existing leads. Then there is the investigation. The laboratory has a Casualty Data section, which produces detailed maps, name associations and records research for unaccounted service members. The section maintains personnel, medical and dental files for unaccounted for service members.

“The Casualty Data analysts research their records and historical documents to compile names and background data, necessary for us to determine specific loss areas. The analysts plot on a map service members last know locations. We use this information to aid in compiling mission lists,” said Couden. “We conduct full-scale investigations to include interviews with locals and witnesses to determine if a site with remains exists. We also look at whether remains would still be at a site or if scavengers have recovered the remains. We analyze how long it would take to recover remains from a specific area and the impact of weather and terrain in that area.”

Additionally they also look at the political climate of the country and whether there is cooperation from the government. All these factors are taken into consideration when they decide on locations for recovery missions.

According to Couden, some of the World War II recovery sites have included Papua New Guinea, Germany, France, Turkey, China, Irian Jaya, the Makin Islands, Vanuatu, Palau and Russia. There are approximately 78,000 service members from World War II that are unaccounted for. Last year CILHI identified 39 individuals lost during World War II.

“We do rely on first-hand accounts of sites where remains may exist. We interview witnesses, locals that may live near a possible site and those who have seen the site for themselves,” said Couden. “All these interviews are part of the investigation and aid in determining if we should conduct an excavation in a specific area.”

This past May, the search for the remains of a UNC service member was made possible by the eyewitness account of a service member. During last year’s 50th Commemoration of the start of the Korean War, he provided information that led to the discovery of two sets of remains. They were transported to CILHI in May.

And sometimes the discovery of remains is by chance.

This past July, after heavy rains pounded the peninsula one weekend, a local farmer walking along a beach down near Osan discovered what appeared to be part of a boot sticking out of the sand. Later, it was determined that what the farmer had stumbled across were the remains of a United Nations Command (UNC) service member. Although the service member’s dog tags and other documents were found at the site, including a map, his name was not released until positive identification could be done at the laboratory in Hawaii.

“Evidence recovered in the field, such as identification tags and aircraft data plates, can give strong clues as to whom the remains belong to, but can rarely constitute the basis of an identification,” said Couden. “For example, we have on occasion recovered ID tags that did not belong to the individual whose remains we recovered. For this reason, each case must undergo a thorough analytical process before identification can be made.”

Since 1996, teams have been able to go into North Korea to search for the remains of service members killed during the fall of 1950. That first year one team was allowed to go into North Korea and the remains of one individual was recovered. The following year, three teams went to North Korea and the remains of six service members were recovered. This year, three teams have been able to recover the remains of 20 service members.

According to Couden, there are two more Joint Recovery Operations planned into North Korea this year. The most recent agreement was in December of 2000. That agreement set the schedule for 2001.

“It was agreed there would be 5 joint recovery missions in 2001. Of those, three of the operations were in Unsan, Kaechon and Kujang, where battles involving the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry, 2nd Infantry and 25th Infantry Division fought in November 1950,” explained Couden. “These last two operations of the year will be on the east and west sides of the Chosin Reservoir in the northeast portion of North Korea. Korean War analysts believe that as many as 750 U.S. soldiers and Marines may have been lost during battles in November and December near Chosin.

“The North Koreans have been cooperative in allowing us to conduct recovery operations. Because of the agreements, we have been able to bring home 127 remains. Of those remains, we have identified and returned 11 service members to their families.”

There are still more than 8,100 U.S. service members still unaccounted for from the Korean War.

The people who work at the laboratory are deeply committed to bringing these men home and to give those thousands of families who have lost loved ones a sense of closure. For some, like Byrd the personal satisfaction they get out of their work when they’ve been able to make a positive identification cannot be measured.

“We identify more than 100 remains every year. We work so hard on so many cases that you don’t always feel the impact until you actually encounter a family member who is affected. When we meet family members of those we have identified we are able to appreciate the actual affect our work has made on those families,” said Byrd. “It gives me an intense feeling of great job satisfaction. However, the flip side is when we haven’t located a service member or are unable to identify an individual, it sometimes gives a feeling of failure.”

The recovery and identification process may take years, but despite the obstacles, the United States Government and the CILHI remain committed to the fullest possible accounting of all of the service members killed in defense of their country.

For the thousands of service members still missing from World War II, Korea and Vietnam the ongoing remains recovery and identification at CILHI promises hope for their families still waiting for their loved ones to come home and to finally give these families some sense of closure.

“Every family that we are able to provide some closure for is always considered a success,” said Couden.

The Accidental Journalist, Part 20 — Departure Ceremony for Korean War Remains

The Story Behind the Story

 

Some of the more sobering and somber articles I wrote on a Korean War Commemorative event or Korean War-related topic were those I wrote about the ceremonies for the repatriation of remains thought to be those of U.S. service members killed during the conflict.

 

Since the end of the conflict in 1953 there have been ongoing searches and recovery operations for remains in both South and North Korea. Remains found in South Korea are repatriated from Seoul to a lab in Hawaii whereas remains recovered in North Korea are repatriated to Japan and then onto the Hawaii for identification.

 

In the spring of 2001 I covered the first of three Departure Ceremonies for the repatriation of remains.

 

It was a very somber ceremony, especially the funeral march by the Eighth Army Band played as the caskets were taken to a hearse for transportation to a military plane. It reminded me of the state funerals I had seen on television, most specifically the funeral for John F. Kennedy.

 

These were straight news stories with very little time to explore the human side of them. After attending the event that was held at U.S. military base in Seoul, I had to  rush back to the newspaper office and write the story—usually with just enough time to spare for the early afternoon deadline.

 

Still, I tried to add some human touches to the story because it was a very moving ceremony and it really meant a lot to me to honor that as of yet unidentified service member. At the same time, when I heard that funeral march being played and watched the caskets slowly be carried by a military honor guard, it really got to me and choked me up when I thought that someone’s husband, father, brother, or son was finally going home.

The first article was written in May 2001/the second one in July 2001

 

Departure Ceremony for UNC Remains Held

 

 

YONGSAN GARRISON, Seoul—A United Nations Command Honor Guard Departure Ceremony was held yesterday to mark the recovery of two sets of Korean War- era remains at Knight Field on Yongsan Army Garrison. The ceremony was by hosted by Maj. Gen. Michael M. Dunn, Deputy Chief of Staff, UNC/USFK and U.S. member to the UNC Military Armistice Commission.

 

“We gather here today to remember those who fought in what sometimes has been referred to as the forgotten war,” said Maj. Gen. Dunn. “But let me assure you the sacrifices of those brave soldiers, sailors airmen, and marines are not forgotten.”

 

The remains are believed to be those of American or other UNC servicemen who fought as part of the UNC to defend the Republic of Korea and have been listed as “killed in action/body not recovered” since the Korean War. One set of remains was found near the battle site known as Arrowhead Hill, while the other was recovered near Horseshoe Ridge.

 

Fifty years ago, on April 23-24, the Marines of 1st Regiment, 1st Battalion fought a “horrific battle with the Chinese Communist forces near the village of Shindong-ni.” After the battle four individuals remained unaccounted for.

 

Maj. Gen. Dunn said, “Today we once again honor their memory—whether they still rest in Korea and remain achingly unaccounted for, or whether they returned home decades ago.”

 

In his speech, he also made note of the drizzle that had been falling during this solemn ceremony.

 

“The Bible says that rain is heaven’s tears. That being so, it is notable that God’s tears are falling on us today,” said Dunn. “But we should see these as tears of joy. First, because 50 years ago God called home these two soldiers. Second, because the remains of these soldiers are also finally going home.”

 

From March 11-30, a joint investigative team from the Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii, and (CILHI) conducted remains recovery operations on the two battlefields. With help from the Ministry of National Defense, the 5th and 27th ROK Infantry Division, and numerous on-peninsula agencies, the team excavated and removed battlefield debris in association with possible human remains. These remains will now begin their journey back to Hawaii for forensic analysis and final disposition. Recovered remains suspected to be of American military personnel, certain American civilian personnel, and certain allied personnel are taken to the laboratory.

 

In his closing remarks, Maj. Gen. Dunn remembered the ultimate sacrifice of these two fallen heroes by evoking the sentiment of John F. Kennedy. “A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.”

 

 

48 Years after Armistice, One Soldier Finally Goes Home

 

YONGSAN GARRISON—Yesterday, 48 years after the signing of the Korean War Armistice, one UNC service member was finally going home.

 

The United Nations Command Honor Guard held a departure ceremony on Knight Field for the remains of a U.S. service member who had been listed as  “killed in action/body not recovered” since the Korean War.

 

“It is fitting on the 48th anniversary of the signing of the armistice, that this service member is finally going home,” remarked Brig. Gen. Timothy E. Donovan, Assistant Chief of Staff, United Nations Command who hosted the ceremony. “May we never forget these sacrifices made on behalf of freedom.”

 

Similarly, Lt. Gen. Kim Myung-hwan, Commandant of the ROK Marine Corps said that “we must not forget those still missing.”

 

The remains were discovered by a local farmer who saw part of a boot sticking out of the mud on a beach west of Osan last Sunday. He notified local police authorities, who then notified the ROK Army which went in and secured the area until the 8th Army’s mortuary people could go out and properly recover the remains.

 

According to Maj. Tim Callahan, Operations Chief for the UNC Military Armistice Commission, the remains were found with some personal effects, including dog tags. It is believed, based on those effects that the service member was killed in the final months of the war.

 

“We know that he was either a pilot or an aircrew member,” said Callahan, “but it’s very important to withhold the identity of the service member for the benefit of families back home until we get positive scientific identification.”

 

Following the departure ceremony the remains were flown to Hawaii for positive identification at the Central Identification Laboratory.

 

“The search for remains is a big mission of the Military Armistice Commission,” added Callahan, “and today’s ceremony was part of the continuing mission we have.”

 

 

 

The Accidental Journalist, Part 19 — An Unexpected Journey

The Story Behind the Story

 

This is actually a “story behind the story” of another story.

 

In addition to attending some of the major Korean War Commemorative Events in the summer and autumn of 2000, I was still writing weekly book reviews on books about the Korean War.

 

And once again it was a book that had me on another journey. This time I was on a journey that took me from Korea to Indiana and then back to Korea.

 

I was surprised that in 2000, the 50th anniversary of the start of this conflict why the Kyobo Bookstore, the largest bookstore in Korea (with the widest selection of English-language books) had very few books on the Korean War. As such, I spent a lot of time ordering books from Amazon and building up quite the collection of books on the Korean conflict—including many new releases that I quickly read and reviewed.

 

One of the books that I ordered, read and later wrote on review on that autumn was Unexpected Journey, A Marine Corps Reserve Company in the Korean War by Randy and Roxanne Mills. The book told the story about some Marine Reservists who were called up during the Korean War and who would see action around the Chosin Reservoir in November 1950.

 

What was most interesting about this book was how it came to be written—the story behind the story. According to a telephone interview that I had with the authors—both of who were university professors in November 2000 for the book review I was writing—they were cleaning out the attic of an old house they had bought when they came across this old photo of some young men in Marine uniforms. They were curious as to who these young men were, and after doing some research and a little investigative work they found out that all of these men had served in the Marines and had been called up to join regular forces in the autumn of 1950. Even more interesting they later discovered was that many of these men were still alive and living in the community. They contacted these veterans, arranged for some interviews and from them wrote this book.

 

And that’s where I came in. After I read the book, I thought it would be interesting to contact the authors and see if they would be willing to do an interview as well as ask them how I could contact some of the veterans they had interviewed. I thought it would be nice to include a few quotes in my book review. So, on Thanksgiving Day in Korea, I am having a telephone interview with Randy and Roxanne Mills. They were very kind and gracious and helped me contact some of the veterans they had interviewed. It was one of the nicest interviews I had, and it seemed ironic that I was having this interview 50 years to the day that the events they had written about in their book had taken place.

 

The veterans they put me in contact with were equally gracious and kind. You know, one of the things that I learned early on—when I started interviewing all these Korean War veterans was how kind, gracious, and humble they were. They really wanted to talk about the war and talk about what it was like for them. They had stories to tell and just wanted an audience. Time and time again I would discover that these were just ordinary men who had been called upon to fight in extraordinary circumstances. All they wanted, at least the veterans I talked to when I was writing all these stories was not to be forgotten for what they had been through.

 

Many did forget about the war themselves when they returned home and carried on with their lives; it was only in later years when they felt compelled to seek out other veterans and if given their chance to talk about their experiences.

 

At first I was going to have this interview accompany the book review; however, after I looked at all my notes I realized that I had enough material to write a feature article. The managing editor at the Korea Times agreed and the interviews that I had with the veterans would become part two of a two-part story on the Chosin Reservoir and the Chosin Few.

 

As for my writing, it was a lot of on-the-job-training as it were figuring out what I wanted to say and then, how to say it. I hoped that with each story I would get better and that I would do all these veterans a great justice and honor by remembering them and telling their stories.

 

 

Chosin Few” Remembered, Part 2
Marine Reservists Recall Horrors

 

This past week marked the 50th Anniversary of the Chinese offensive against U.S. – ROK and U.N. Forces in North Korea—an intervention that abruptly turned the tide of the war.

 

What had been MacArthur’s brilliant and grandiose plan—to push all the way to the Yalu—would become the subject of much debate and scrutiny over the years when these U.S.-ROK and UN forces were smashed, battered and pounded on the hills and in the valleys in North Korea.

 

Many of the Marines who ended up around an area known as the Chosin Reservoir were reservists who had been called up just weeks before. They would soon be fighting for survival in places like Yudam-ni, Hagaru-ri, and Koto-ri. Some were shipped over to Korea—with no more than two weeks of training—in time for the liberation of Seoul and a trip north to Wonsan. Others, who arrived later—after a month of training—went directly to the reservoir.

 

The story of some of these reservists as documented in Unexpected Journey, A Marine Corps Reserve Company in the Korean War by Randy and Roxanne Mills is a remarkable one of heroic proportions. Their story is just as much dramatic, as it is heartwarming and inspiring. Although many of these men had seen action during WWII, most of the reservists who were shipped to Korea were either recent high school graduates or still in high school.

 

Fighting alongside their “regular” Marine brethren, they would prove themselves countless times in the valleys, hills, and mountain tops in North Korea during those fateful, bitterly cold days and nights in November-December 1950.

 

Paul McDaniel, a veteran of the 3rd Marine Division during WWII, was one of those reservists who became a member of the local Marine Reserve in Evansville, Indiana in 1947. The twenty-five dollars he made each month came in handy. When his unit was activated in 1950, he was one of the first reservists sent to Korea.

 

“Three hundred of us went from Camp Pendleton to Travis AFB by train,” recalled McDaniel. “Some Pan Am planes had been commandeered to fly us over.”

 

After stops along the way—Honolulu, Wake Island, and Tokyo—they finally arrived at Kimpo in a C-47.

 

“The North Koreans were firing at our plane. We had to circle around and around for awhile before we could land,” said McDaniel.

 

McDaniel had arrived in Korea in time for the liberation of Seoul.

 

Once in Seoul, he became a member of the 1st Marine Division. It wasn’t easy being a reservist, though. “The regulars resented us at first because we had more rank and more experience,” said McDaniel, but in the end, “they finally accepted us. Everybody becomes a brother when things get rough.”

 

David Graham, another reservist from Evansville arrived in September 1950. He had joined the reserves “because they [the Marines] came to my high school, Bosse High School, and recruited students.

 

“Some of my friends joined and at that time it sounded exciting. We got a uniform and we got paid for our training. It was probably the macho thing at the time,” recalled Graham.

 

His first impressions of Korea were being, scared to death, having no idea what to expect or what may lie ahead The second day he was in Korea one of our group from Evansville, was killed, Corp. John Elliott, whom we were looking to be our leader, recalled Graham.

 

Soon after Seoul had been liberated, McDaniel, Graham and others would board a troop ship and head toward Wonsan as part of X Corps. MacArthur had crossed the 38th Parallel. The push to the Yalu was on. After MacArthur’s Inchon masterstroke, liberation of Seoul, and the fall of Pyongyang, many believed that the war would soon be over. Indeed, MacArthur even went as far as to declare that the “boys would be home by Christmas.”

 

“We were told we would be home by Christmas, but I didn’t believe it,” said McDaniel who eventually ended up near the tiny village of Yudam-ni. “A lot of troops were moving in.”

 

Fellow Evansville reservist and WWII Marine veteran William Wright landed at Wonsan on Nov. 10, the Marine Corps’ birthday. “We saw a lot of North Korean prisoners,” recalled Wright, “but we took it lightly. However, when we saw our first dead Korean, it shook us.”

 

Wright, who would eventually see action around Hagaru-ri, was impressed with the gorgeous mountain ranges and how peaceful it was there. “The war would soon end the serenity,” recalled Wright sadly. “Something beautiful would turn into something horrible.”

 

McDaniel recalled it being “terribly cold.” Although they had winter clothing, it wasn’t enough.

 

“We were issued these shoepacs which were supposed to keep our feet warm. Trouble was your feet would sweat,” said McDaniel. “Then, when you stopped moving around and sat down, ice crystals would form between your toes.”

 

Warming tents were made available for the Marines who came off the line for 10-15 minutes. McDaniel and another Marine had just come off this hill, but they would not have time to warm up.

 

“All at once bullets started flying in through the tent. The Chinese had climbed up the hill where we had just been at,” recalled McDaniel who had to crawl out of the tent with the other Marine. “It was one of the most hellacious nights I’d ever spent.”

 

Although the Marines managed to get through the night, they soon found themselves surrounded. It would be an occurrence up and down the MSR (Main Supply Road).

 

“The only way out was to fight our way out,” said McDaniel, “so we tied the wounded and the dead to the hoods of our trucks and started out. We made it about two to three city blocks when the hill erupted with fire and brought us to a stop. Colonel Taplett came up to us and said ‘boys, we’re not getting out of here unless we can get rid of those troops.’”

 

McDaniel and others fought their way up that mountain to clear off the Chinese. McDaniel recalled the “bullets splattering all around us” as they went up the mountain. They started at 10:00 in the morning; by 7:00 at night, they had only made it three-fourths up the snow and ice-covered mountain.

 

“Then it got dark, real dark,” remembered McDaniel.

 

The 157 Marines who made it up that mountain formed a tight perimeter and prayed that it would hold through the night.

 

“We made a big circle and waited for the Chinese. They came running through us. A lot of hand-to-hand fighting. A lot of mayhem going on.”

 

The battle raged all night and McDaniel was wounded at some point. (A bullet entered his left ankle and came out his right.) In the morning, there were “dead Marines and dead Chinese all over the place.”

 

Once off the mountain, McDaniel was loaded on a truck along with other wounded and dead Marines. It took them three days to travel 15 miles from Yudam-ni to Hagaru-ri.

 

“The Chinese were shooting down at us; swarming over the hills,” recalled McDaniel. “Every so often the convoy would stop. Then the Colonel would say, ‘boys, I hate to tell you this, but they’ve got us hemmed in again.’

 

“Then these men, no food for two days and all frozen would go trudging off in the deep snow to clear the roadblock. They would come back with some wounded, load them in the back of the truck with the rest of us, and we’d continue on our way.”

 

(Paul McDaniel would eventually be flown out of Hagaru-ri. Interestingly, one of the Marines who worked around the clock to scrape a runway out of the frozen ground was a reservist from Indiana.)

 

Further down the road in Hagaru-ri, Wright was stringing some communications wire when he spotted the Chinese. “I was on a telephone pole when I saw the Chinese coming. From then on, I was a rifleman.”

 

Wright’s most vivid memories of those days and nights in November-December were the cold and the “multitudes of Chinese.” However, it would be the “brutality of war” which would have a lasting effect on his life.

 

“Everything went so fast,” recalled Wright.

 

Like McDaniel, Wright was also part of an effort to clear a mountain of Chinese.

 

“We fought day and night,” said Wright. “We lost a lot of men.”

 

In one of Wright’s most terrifying moments of the battle, he and six other Marines had to lie on their stomachs all night and hold their position on the hill.

 

“We could not fire our weapons. Then the Chinese would know how many of us were there. We could see the Chinese coming down. They would come down two or three at a time. They could see us, but they didn’t know how many of us were lying there. In the morning we were relieved by another company and we went on to the next hill.”

 

Wright, like countless other Marines and soldiers would suffer one of the battle-casualties common to the fighting around the Chosin: frostbite. It has been reported that more casualties were caused by frostbite than from being wounded in action.

Other terrifying and vivid moments experienced by the men up and down the hills and valleys were the cacophony of sounds and noise the Chinese made when they launched an attack.

 

“The noises the Chinese made before they attacked, the bells, whistles, and bugles still raises the hair on the back of my neck when I think about it,” recalled McDaniel. “Of course, once the firing started you couldn’t hear anything else.”

 

Raleigh McGary, who was at Chinhung-ni, also vividly remembered the cold and the noise among other things.

 

“My most frightening time was the breaking of the trap to allow the 1st Marine Division to exit the Chosin Reservoir area,” recollected McGary  “We suffered many casualties and I not only feared for my well-being but that of all those around me. The horrible conditions may have worked in our favor in that we didn’t have time to be afraid because we were battling the elements all the time.

 

“My most vivid memories concern the cold and how miserable we were. This is fairly common with Chosin Survivors. Remembering the bodies and body parts of young men littering the road as we advanced still haunts me.”

 

The plight of the refugees was another vivid memory the men had of the Chosin Reservoir. McGary remembers “thousands of refugees streaming down the MSR with no place to get out of the cold.”

 

Wright was also deeply touched by the human tragedy caused by the Korean War. Even today, 50 years later, he is still torn by the brutality of the war and its effect on the Korean people.

 

“I had such compassion for the people,” said Wright. “The kids were crying all the time. They were involved, too. They were scared and would come to us. There’s so much of that in war. People don’t always realize that.

 

“The Korean people are such good people. I felt deeply sorry for them and what little some people had. They suffered so much from that war. It’s one thing that you never forget. I did as much as I could. It really hurt me to see how brutal the war was to the Korean people.”

 

Looking back on the Korean War, most veterans agree that it was worth it. Even though the war was not “won” as it were, many believed that it stopped, or at least slowed down the spread of communism.

 

“It was well worth it,” said McDaniel. “It was too bad the Chinese had entered, though.”

 

McDaniel felt that if the Chinese hadn’t entered the war, perhaps Korea could have been unified then.

 

Wright concurred. “Absolutely it was worth it. We did not win in Korea, but we didn’t allow Communism to take over, either.”

 

McGary, looked at the bigger picture, too. “The Korean War was the first challenge to the spread of Communism.”

 

On the other hand, Graham looked at things differently. “I was able to do what I did, but knowing now the way things are today, I would not do it again. This generation would not do what we had done,” said Graham.

 

Although the Korean War has often been referred to as the “Forgotten War,” McGary believed that it was natural, at least for the veterans to forget about it initially.

 

“There was no time to dwell on it when I got home. Most men went about their jobs. I returned to college for my senior year, graduated in June 1952 and began my career as an elementary teacher.”

 

McDaniel, after months of hospitalization, went back to work for the Whirlpool Corporation. He would become a chief illustrator for the Whirlpool catalog. He retired in 1984. Wright, who rotated back to the States in August 1951, ended up working for a telephone company for 41 years.

 

Even though the men were rotated back to the States—either from wounds or having completed their tour of duty—many would have gone back.

 

“Almost all of us would have gone back,” said McGary, who went home in May 1951, “if we had been needed.”

Veteran Stunned by Wonderful Chance to Revisit Korea

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The Story Behind the Story

In the spring of 2003 I was reading the Online edition of the News Tribune, a newspaper back in LaSalle, Illinois when I came across an article about a Korean War Veteran from Peru, Illinois who had received an all-expenses paid trip to Korea to attend the 50th anniversary of the signing of the armistice.

What was most interesting and ironic about this was that I had covered the event at the War Memorial Museum in Seoul where the names of the veterans were chosen to receive the all-expenses paid trip to Korea and that the veteran, Floyd Hybki was the father of Greg Hybki a kid I had gone to LaSalle-Peru Township High School with back in 1972-1976 (I think we were even in a few of the same classes).

After I read this article I sent an email to the News Trib reporter asking him how I could get in touch with Mr. Hybki—I was already thinking about the article that I could write. The reporter was kind enough to send me Mr. Hybki’s contact information who I contacted immediately.

Mr. Hybki and I exchanged a few email prior to his arrival in Korea and hoped that we would have the chance to meet. I say hoped because usually when these groups of veterans come to Korea they have very little free time—at least that’s the way it was for all these Korean War Commemorative Events. They are bused from one event to another and being this event back in 2003 was going to be the grand finale to all the commemoration events the veterans were going to be busy with luncheons, dinners, tours, and the like.

I figured there would be no chance for us to meet prior to the event at Panmunjom, so I hoped we could meet afterwards. As it turned out we both had a tight schedule; I had to file a story and he had to attend another dinner but we planned to meet at his hotel late in the afternoon after the event was over.

However, fate and the Good Lord would step in because on the day I went to Panmunjom with the press pool, I literally bumped into Mr. Hybki and his eldest son who had accompanied him to Korea on Conference Row in the Joint Security Area. With hundreds of veterans, dignitaries, service members, guests, and media running around, the chances for us meeting there were slim to say the least, but we did. That was pretty special to meet someone from back home in Panmunjom on this historic day.

After the event that day, I went back to Seoul and had enough time to meet with Mr. Hybki. I still had to write my article for the next day’s edition and with an early deadline and I wouldn’t have much time to meet with Mr. Hybki. He was also pressed for time because of a dinner that evening but we managed to meet for an hour—more than enough time to interview him for the article I planned to write about his visit to Korea.

And that’s how I got to meet a Korean War veteran from my community at Panmunjom on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the armistice.

Sadly Mr. Hybki passed away two years ago.

Veteran Stunned by Wonderful Chance to Revisit Korea

When Floyd Hybki of Peru, Illinois found out that he was coming to Korea, 50 years after he had been here the first time, he couldn’t believe it.

Hybki was one of the 400 Korean War veterans from the United States who were offered an all-expenses-paid trip to Korea to take part in last weekend’s Korean armistice commemoration—courtesy of the Federation of Korean Industries.

“I couldn’t believe that I had been picked to come to Korea,’’ the 75-year-old Hybki said. “To tell you the truth, I thought there was some kind of a gimmick because no one gives you a free trip, hotel accommodations, and meals.’’

His trip back here for the commemoration started with an advertisement for an all-expenses-paid trip to Korea which he came across while flipping through a veteran’s magazine.

“I thought I would go ahead and send in my name and address, and see what happened,’’ he said. “I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity.’’

Hybki’s name was one of the lucky names drawn for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity during a ceremony held at the War Memorial Museum in Seoul in March. Shortly after, he received a letter from Col. Martin Glasser of the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission informing him that his name had been picked and that he would be coming to Korea with other American veterans.

“It was really something when I got this letter,’’ he said, pulling out the letter. “Who would have thought that I would get this chance to come back here again?’’

When the Korean War broke out, Hybki who had joined the army in 1948 was a member of the Illinois National Guard.

“In 1951, they needed more troops in Korea so they called up the Illinois National Guard and shipped us off to California,’’ Hybki recalled. “We were supposed to wait until we got up to division strength, but they needed more men over here, so they started breaking us up and sent us over here individually to fill in spots in various units.’’

After arriving in Seoul in 1952, he was assigned to the 8th Army’s 658th Quartermaster Company in Chuncheon, Korea. Looking back on his service, some of the things that are still vivid in his mind were the cold weather and the fierce fighting characterized by the so-called defensive stalemate of the conflict during the last two years.

“We’d take a hill, and then a couple of days later we were forced off that hill by the Chinese,’’ he said. “And then we’d take that hill again.’’

Aside from the fighting, one of the things that Hybki remembers the most about being in Korea was the suffering of the people, albeit the deplorable living conditions or the lack of food, medicine, and other supplies.

“The people weren’t living a life; they were existing because there was nothing,’’ he recalled sadly.

He still vividly recalls that in the days leading up to the signing of the armistice there was a lot of fighting still going on.

“Right up until the armistice was signed both sides were firing their artillery every night,’’ Hybki said. “And kept it up right until the armistice went into effect.’’

After the armistice was signed though, he and other soldiers tried to celebrate it in the best way they could.

“We had about four companies in our compound so we scratched together whatever food we could find—hamburgers, hot dogs and lots of beer,’’ he said smiling. “We played some ballgames and listened to music. There was not a lot we could do.’’

He left Korea on Sept. 9, 1953, and returned to Peru three weeks later. He was transferred back to the Illinois National Guard and was honorably discharged in June 1955.

“I thought about coming back here, after my sons had grown up,’’ he said. “But the older I got, the thought of coming back here sort of faded.’’

Accompanying Hybki on his trip to Korea was his son Gary who had flown in from Australia to be with his father. It was a special time for the father and son to experience the commemoration together and for Hybki to share some of his recollections of the war with his son.

“We went to Seoul Tower yesterday (Saturday) and I tried to find this cathedral that I visited when I was here,’’ he said. “It took me awhile, but I found it and pointed it out to him.’’

On Christmas Eve in 1952, Hybki and a few other soldiers came into Seoul to attend midnight mass. The cathedral, located in Myong-dong had been severely damaged during the war with holes in the roof and had no electricity.

“All these Koreans came in and lit all these candles so they could have midnight mass,’’ Hybki said.

Hybki pointed out that when many of the Korean War veterans from his guard unit returned to Peru they put the war behind them and got on with their lives.

“When I got called up to go to Korea I was working at Westclox (a clock factory), so after I got back home, I went to work there again,’’ he said. “It was like I had been on vacation. You just went back home and carried on with your life.’’

For Hybki, one of the more memorable moments of this trip to Korea was locating the name of his wife’s brother listed on a panel of Illinois service members killed during the war in the Hall of Heroes at the War Memorial Museum.

“It meant a lot to me to find his name,’’ he added sadly. “He was only 19 years old when he was killed in action.’’

Hybki, who returned to the United States with the other veterans on Tuesday, was very grateful for The Federation of Korean Industries (FKI) for sponsoring this trip.

“This is more than I expected. I can’t believe what the FKI has done for us, and the hospitality shown to us by the Korean people,’’ he said.

During last Friday’s Salute to the Heroes dinner at the Grand Hyatt Hotel sponsored by the Seoul USO, veterans from all of the nations that participated during the war were awarded medals and certificates—the Korean government’s gesture to thank them for their service and sacrifices made during the war.

“You feel a little different after coming back here,’’ he said. “I can see now that everything was appreciated and worth it.’’

This first appeared in the Korea Times on July 30, 2003

If you enjoyed this blog post and the newspaper article, you can read other articles I wrote for the Korea Times in Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm.

The Accidental Journalist, Part 17 — The “Chosin Few” Remembered

These days I have been reading The Coldest Winter – America and the Korean War by the late David Halberstam that looks not only at America’s involvement in the Korean War during the first six months of the war, but also what took place in and around the Chosin or Changjin Reservoir in North Korea. It was back in October-November 1950 when U.S., South Korean, and UN forces had the North Koreans on the run. It looked as though the war would soon be over; in fact some were so optimistic that winter clothing and gear was not ordered. Then the Chinese entered the conflict and the tide of the war changed within days.

 

I was interested in this book for a number of reasons not the least of which are that Halberstam was one of my favorite authors and that back in 2000 I had the chance to meet some Korean War veterans who fought in that campaign and who are collectively known as the Chosin Few. I also had the chance to meet Medal of Honor recipient Gen. Raymond Davis who led his men across the frozen mountains at night with the Chinese attacking them from all sides.

 

Back then when I was covering these Korean War Commemorative Events for the Korea Times, I was fortunate that the Public Affairs Office (PAO) that dealt with the media appreciated what I was doing and always tried to help me whenever possible. For that I will always be most grateful.

 

This commemorative event was held on November 11, Veteran’s Day, which made it all the more solemn and evocative, especially when I had the chance to talk to some of veterans who proudly call themselves the Chosin Few. And then later, one of the PAO staff members helped me arrange for a very quick interview with Gen. Raymond Davis. He was most gracious to sit down with me for a few minutes and share some of his most harrowing reminiscences of the fighting around the Chosin Reservoir.

 

You can’t help but look upon someone like Davis with awe knowing that this man personally saved the lives of hundreds of men in the heat of battle and temperatures so cold that men had to warm up morphine syrettes underneath their armpits before administering the painkiller to the wounded.

 

Once again it was no accident that I had the chance to meet Davis and other veterans and then write my articles for the newspaper. I was just doing my own small part to remember this “forgotten war.”

 

This article originally appeared in the Korea Times on November 12, 2000.

 

 

 “Chosin Few” Remembered


—The Fiercest Battle in the Forgotten War—

 

Recently, Korean War veterans gathered in the Yongsan Garrison to commemorate the Northern Campaigns in the early phase of the 1950-53 Korea War. In a solemn ceremony, the battles fought north of the 38th Parallel were remembered.

 

It was 50 years ago when Gen. Douglas MacArthur, following his brilliant Inchon masterstroke and liberation of Seoul, pursued a “demoralized enemy” across the 38th Parallel and North to the Yalu. However, the pursuit of the enemy beyond the 38th Parallel was a sensitive, precarious undertaking because it carried the threat of Chinese retaliation.

 

In less than a month, U.S. – ROK and U.N. Forces had turned the tide of the Korean War. In October, Pyongyang fell to U.N. Forces. Many thought, “the boys would be home by Christmas.”

 

It seemed that there was no stopping of U.N. forces as they crossed the 38th Parallel and pushed north toward the Yalu River. That is, until the Chinese entered the war. This Chinese intervention would change the complexity of the war and prompt MacArthur’s statement of an “entirely different war.”

 

MacArthur’s push north has always been the subject of much debate and scrutiny. Invariably, scrutiny lays with his decision to cross the 38th Parallel and the threat of Chinese entry into the war.

 

“MacArthur was a brilliant tactician,” explained retired USMC Colonel Warren H. Wiedhahn, now Executive Director of U.S.-Korea 2000 Foundation, Inc. “However, he extended his forces too far.”

 

It was ironic, Wiedhahn suggested, MacArthur had turned the tide of the war in part due to the North Koreans having extended themselves down the peninsula. Now, the complexity of the war was about to change again because MacArthur had extended his troops up the peninsula. Wiedhahn believed that MacArthur “whipped the 8th Army into moving too fast.”

 

On the other hand, the X Corps advance seemed more methodical and by the book.

Wiedhahn was critical of those historians and pundits who have savaged the Army’s performance. “The leadership made mistakes,” he said, “but those soldiers [in the 8th Army] fought just as hard as the Marines did.”

 

Nonetheless, there was little resistance in the beginning. “It was like a cakewalk up the peninsula,” Wiedhahn said. “We expected to be home by Christmas. Then the Chinese hit.”

 

After an initial offensive by Chinese forces in early November, the Chinese disappeared back into the mountains. Before U.S. – ROK and U.N. forces could launch their own offensive, the Chinese struck again. In the West, the 8th Army would suffer staggering losses around Kunu-ri, especially in an area known as the “Gauntlet,” where the 2nd Infantry Division lost over 4,000 men.

 

In the East, X Corps would find themselves in a fight for survival around the Changjin Reservoir, better known as, the “Chosin” Reservoir. Against great odds and hardships, the men of X Corps waged a fierce battle against the Chinese and the elements, especially the cold.

 

“More men were evacuated because of frostbite than the enemy,” explained LCDR William Mitchell, a doctor during the war. Mitchell, who had landed with the Marines at Wolmi-do, Inchon, and later set up a civilian hospital in Yongdung-po, before ending up at the reservoir, pointed out that “most Marines would fight you over a pair of dry socks.”

 

Don Geddes who saw action in and around Yudam-ni was one of those Marines who suffered from frostbite. “Frostbite and other wounds put me back to the States.”

Soon, places like Yudam-ni, Hagaru-ri, Koto-ri, and Toktong Pass would pass into Marine vernacular and history.

              

Wiedhahn recalled being out on one of the listening posts in the freezing cold. “I heard these bugles and whistles,” Wiedhahn said. “What the hell is that, I asked one of my buddies? Suddenly this whole ridge erupted. The Chinese came in hordes. They overwhelmed our firepower. Machine barrels burned up. The Chinese were all around us.”

 

Marines would be up against innumerable odds. Many would die on those far-off forsaken hills in the freezing cold. Others, when thrust into harms’ way against such great odds, would become heroes.

 

One such hero was Lt. Colonel Raymond Davis who would end up receiving the Medal of Honor for his actions around Yudam-ni and the Toktong Pass. Against overwhelming odds, Davis rescued a rifle company that had nearly been annihilated at the Toktong Pass.

 

“Colonel Homer Litzenberg came up to me and said that I had to get to Fox Company,” explained Davis. “I had 20 minutes to come up with a plan.”

 

Before they set out, Davis noticed a star in the sky that seemed to be brighter than usual.

 

“Seeing that star…doubled in brightness,” Davis recalled, “I knew the Good Lord was with us.”

 

Davis would lead his men nearly eight miles along slippery paths in a daring attempt to relieve the beleaguered rifle company and hold the pass so other Marine units would not be cut off.

 

“We were freezing to death,” Davis said. “We walked single file through the deep snow. After awhile the path turned to ice and the men started slipping.”

 

He led his men over a series of ridges in continuous attacks against the enemy.

Despite being opposed by numerically superior forces, Davis brought his men within 1500 yards away from Fox Company before daybreak.

 

“We used a hand crank radio to alert Fox Company,” Davis said. “I didn’t want to end up in a firefight with them. We still had to fight our way in, though.”

 

Davis also recalled being shocked when he noticed that many of the Marines had used the dead, frozen bodies of the Chinese as barricades. “That was a pretty shocking sight.”

 

Pfc. Henry Danilowski was one of those survivors of the beleaguered Fox Company at Toktong Pass, one of those brave Marines who now belongs to that proud fraternal association, “The Chosin Few.” He turned 22 while fighting around the Chosin Reservoir. Like many Marines, Danilowski felt he’d be home by Christmas. “Didn’t expect this to happen.”

 

Danilowski had great respect for the Marine General O.P. Smith. “Smith made sure to stockpile supplies,” recalled Danilowski. Later in the campaign, he remembered overhearing some Marine report to Colonel Lewis Puller and inform the colonel that they were surrounded by the Chinese. “Good,” Puller was reported to have said, “then they can’t get away.”

 

Later, Davis would organize two task forces to open the pass. Despite repeated attacks by the enemy, Davis and his men would hold the pass until two regiments had been deployed through the area and then moved onto Hagaru-ri with his battalion intact.

 

At Hagaru-ri, the Marines could consolidate and continue their orderly withdrawal to the coast, first to Koto-ri and then to Hungnam. When asked about this “withdrawal under pressure,” General Smith is reported to have replied that they were not withdrawing, but “attacking in a different direction.”

 

Back in Korea for the commemoration of the Northern Campaigns, Davis has a deep feeling of appreciation to be back here and to take part in these commemorative events. Wiedhahn has been back here four times this year.

 

Still, there is some unfinished business.

 

Davis and Wiedhahn have been fortunate to visit North Korea on two occasions, as part of a group helping North Korean children, once in 1991 and again in 1998. On one such visit, they flew over the reservoir, but, according to Davis, were unable to go there due to “security reasons.” Nonetheless, Davis is confident that he will get back there some day and make it to the reservoir. “I still have men up there,” Davis said sadly.

 

Likewise, Wiedhahn is also optimistic. Both he and Davis have been lobbying hard and keeping the pressure on. “We’re hoping to get back there next year,” he said.

 

Perhaps one day, all those men will finally come home.

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