It was eight years ago this June when I started covering many of the Korean War Commemorative events that were held in Korea. After having reviewed a number of books on the Korean War, I was allowed to write some feature stories and articles on these events that I would like to share here.
I pretty much “crashed” the major Korean War Commemorative Ceremony at the War Memorial Museum in downtown Seoul on June 25, 2000. I had no press credentials and I wasn’t on any of the official guest lists. However, I did know some officials on the Anniversary Committee inside and I was hoping they would turn up to vouch for me.
About a month before, I had met them when I had gone to the War Memorial Museum to interview Gen. Paik Sun-yup, a Korean War hero, who had written a book about his war experience a few years earlier. I had read the book and somehow I managed to arrange for an interview with Paik who just so happened to be the chairperson of the Anniversary Committee.
I guess I must have made quite the impression because as far as I know no other reporters in Korea-Korean or foreign-had wanted to interview Paik or even knew about his book. Surprisingly and quite sadly, there didn’t seem to be too much buildup to this big event on June 25 and maybe that is why it was so easy for me to get an interview with Paik. It was a good interview and afterwards, some of Paik’s staff invited me to the event. They assured me that I would have no problem getting in.
However, when I did show up at the War Memorial Museum on that scorching Sunday morning, my name was not on any of the lists. I probably should have had someone at the newspaper call to make sure that I could get in but I figured that Paik’s staff would be there. They weren’t.
Not wanting to turn around and go back home when I had come this far, I flashed my passport and Alien Registration Card-which was actually a small blue booklet back then-and that must have done the trick because I was allowed to proceed through the security area (Korean President Kim Dae-jung would be delivering a speech so there was increased security) and inside where the ceremony would take place (in a mall-like area in front of the War Memorial Museum).
Once inside I bumped into Don Kirk, who at the time was the Seoul correspondent for The International Herald Tribune (he also was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune and got his start reporting from Vietnam). He recognized me from a photo that accompanied a recent article I had written for the Korea Times about a trip to the “Iron Triangle.”
We ended up hanging out together for the rest of the ceremony (and when he interviewed some veterans, I picked up some valuable journalistic skills from this veteran reporter). At one point, we walked out on the makeshift stage, which was built in front of the main entrance so I could introduce Kirk to Gen. Paik. I still can’t believe that we could just walk out on that stage with President Kim arriving soon. I guess as soon as the security folks saw us talking to Paik they must have figured we were supposed to be there.
After all the speeches had been given, Kirk and I mingled with some of the veterans and we interviewed a few of them. There was already a staff reporter from the paper covering the event but I thought that I could write a feature story (besides I wouldn’t have had enough time to make the deadline for the first edition).
This is not one of my better articles/stories. I could have done so much more with it had I spent a little more time at the ceremony talking to veterans. Still, it was an honor for me to have been there on this most auspicious occasion. It meant a lot to me.
War Vets Voice Mixed Bag of Feelings-Commemorating 50th War Anniversary-
-Commemorating 50th War Anniversary-
Under the dual banner of “Pursuing Peace beyond the Korean War” and “Pursuing Reunification beyond the Division,” the 50th anniversary of the Korean War commemoration this past Sunday, might have seemed a bit toned down, but for the multitude of veterans in attendance, it was a magnificent and memorable occasion.
Not to be overshadowed by the recent North-South Summit, for the veterans who assembled at the War Memorial Museum in Yongsan, downtown Seoul, the commemorative events were a mixed bag of emotions-just as much touching as they were congratulatory.
For many of the veterans who returned to Korea to take part in the commemoration events it was their first trip back here. For others, it was a chance to meet up with fellow veterans and to share their emotions and remembrances of the war and their time in Korea.
Marine veteran Andrew Lanza from New York, who had seen action during the war on a hill called “Vegas,” felt that the 50th Commemoration was a “very emotional” event. Likewise, Lanza thought it was very exciting to be a part of the events. “The people have been so nice here.”
Fellow New Yorker and Staten Island VFW member, Thomas Sanfilippo concurred. Sanfilippo, an Air Force veteran who served in Korea at Chinhae in 1952, thought the commemoration ceremony was “really touching and bordering on the emotional.”
After the ceremonies, both men were elated to meet up with veterans from other countries. They even traded their unit pins. Lanza traded one of his pins for a tie clasp from a Turkish unit, and Sanfilippo met up with a vet from the South African Air Force, “The Flying Cheetahs.” He proudly sported the “Flying Cheetahs” pin on his campaign hat.
When asked what they thought about the cancellation of the parade and the “toning down” as it were of some of the festivities, both men thought, “it was a good idea.”
Many veterans shared the same sentiment. They were happy, excited, and impressed with the commemoration and were not bothered that the events seem toned down or canceled like the parade. “It was obviously political,” expressed one vet, “but I can understand it.”
Nonetheless, veterans welcomed the positive overtures from the summit earlier this month and hoped for the best.
On the stage, before the commemoration events started, a very proud Gen. Paik Sun-yup, the chairperson of the 50th Anniversary committee, was “happy with the ceremony” and commented that it was a great day for all those in attendance.
“Korean people sacrificed so much 50 years ago,” Paik reflected as he looked around at the representatives of the 21 U.N. member governments who had sent troops or assistance to Korea assembled on the stage. “All these countries helped my country.”
When asked about the recent North-South peace summit, Paik said, “we have a long way to go, but we hope for a good deal.”
Returning veterans like Cornelious O’Keefe had other thoughts on the war and its consequences. A draftee from Yorkshire in the U.K., O’Keefe came to Korea in 1953 and saw action in and around a ridge called “the Hook” where British forces sustained heavy casualties.
As O’Keefe reflected on the war and its aftermath, he noted, “one of the tragedies of the war…is what happens to the families.” As for his thoughts on the outcome of the North-South summit, O’Keefe said, “I wish these people well.”
Some of the veterans, who made it back here, are part of a proud military fraternal association like the “Chosin Few”-in reference to the Marines and soldiers of the X Corps who survived the Chosin Reservoir campaign in late 1950.
Albert Walton, from Carthage, Missouri, who served with Baker Co. /7th Regiment of the 3rd Marine Division found the ceremonies “quite touching.” Walton, who proudly wore the “Chosin Few” emblem on his hat saw action around Yudam-ni and was wounded just after one month of combat. “I landed in Wonsan on the 15th (November) and left one month later,” Walton recalled.
Chester Hyla and Arnold Anderson who both served with the 8th Army in the area known as the “Punchbowl” thought that the ceremonies on Sunday were “very impressive” and that it was a thrill to be here. “We’re just happy to be a part of their freedom,” Anderson said. Both men had served in adjacent artillery units during the war and ribbed each other about whose unit was the better shot.
Finally, one of the more outspoken veterans was Fred Kirkland, a member of the 1st/2nd Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment, part of the Commonwealth Division. When asked what his thoughts were on the war and being here today, he echoed the sentiment expressed by so many veterans who made it to the central ceremony on Sunday.
“Very emotional,” reflected the seventy-something veteran who had fought in Korea from 1952 to 1953 at such places as the Imjin and Kapyong.
For Kirkland, this was his 23rd trip to Korea since the war. “I like the culture,” he said. “And I have many Korean friends…their sons and daughters, their grandsons and granddaughters.
When asked about his feelings on the scaled-down commemoration events and the recent North-South Summit, “if it enhances or quickens the reunification of the Korean Peninsula, I would concur.”
On Sunday, as these veterans and other veterans gathered with friends, family, and others, it was not only a day of emotions and remembrance but also a day of hope for peace on the Korean peninsula.