Seven years ago today I “crashed” the 50th Anniversary of the Korean War Commemoration at the War Memorial Museum in Yongsan.

I say “crashed” because I had not been formally invited to the event nor was I a member of the press corps. I had interviewed South Korean General and war hero Paik Sun-yup a few weeks before and some of his staff told me that I could come to the event.

I had just started writing feature articles for the Korea Times as well as reviewing books on the Korean War and I really wanted to attend this event.

War Vets Voice Mixed Bag of Feelings—Commemorating 50th War Anniversary

By Jeffrey Miller
Feature Writer

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 throngs 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…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 gleaming Gen. Paik Sun-yup, the chairperson of the 50th Anniversary committee was “happy with the ceremony” and commented that it was a great day. “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 North-South peace summit, Paik said “we have a long way to go. 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.