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Korean War lingers in people's hearts

I hailed a cab outside my daughter's apartment at 4 a.m. Wednesday. It took me to a bus, which took me to a plane, which took me to another plane. I finally got home — before I left.

And so now it's 4 a.m. again and my mind says it's late afternoon. I'm wide awake. Is this what they mean by jet lag?

Keeping track of time on the other side of the International Dateline has become common in our house since both daughters set sail last fall to teach English at private schools in Seoul, South Korea. Their decision was based partly on the weak job market here, but mainly on a desire to see the world. I'm pleased to report they are thriving and able to maneuver around a city of more than 10 million as well as the natives.

It helps that South Koreans are such warm, honest people — and that they respect Americans. At least that was our impression during our two weeks, particularly at the War Memorial of Korea, which is commemorating the 60th anniversary of the invasion from the north that eventually gave freedom to a country that had been accustomed to being under some other country's thumb.

When we entered the vast museum, an older Korean man offered a brief history lesson of the war — the roles of the Soviets, Chinese, United Nations. I happened to mention that my father had been there 60 years ago as a soldier. The man grasped my hand and said, "I am at your service.''

Some 37,000 Americans gave their lives in what is often called the Forgotten War, overshadowed by World War II and Vietnam. But in Seoul, it is still very much on the minds of the people who live under constant threat from the communist regime north of the 38th parallel.

Not that you would know it in the shopping centers, bars and restaurants — or on the subway where it seems everyone is glued to a tiny cell phone screen or sending text messages. The city is full of contrasts, from the fishmongers hawking squid and crabs to the suit-clad men and women swarming to work in the high-rise glass towers of the financial district. Only steps from the World Trade Center you can stroll through an ancient Buddhist temple. We had coffee in a nearby swank cafe, walked a few blocks and found a forest and the grave of a king who died in 1494.

But for all the sights, hardly a day passed that I didn't think about what Seoul must have been like 60 years earlier. My dad, who spent 33 years as an Army officer, wrote a manuscript before he died a few years ago, devoting a chapter to his 18 months in Korea.

Only five years after he nearly died from wounds he suffered in the Philippines, he was sent to war once again. In his manuscript, he described the day my mother, Delores, came to the depot in Fort Lewis, Wash., to watch him ship out in August 1950. "We loaded up the buses. I looked out the window and there was Delores and the children looking for me. I was sitting next to our chaplain, who reached out the window and picked up Billy, who was only 8 months old. He said a prayer for us and the buses pulled out for Seattle.''

Military wives can relate to the pain and loneliness my mother felt as her man once again went to war, leaving her to tend to three children. Sad to say that tradition has not changed over the years.

After enduring a typhoon at sea, Dad came ashore at Pusan and advanced with his infantry unit far above the 38th parallel only to be chased back by Chinese troops. He described bitter cold and enduring "incoming mail'' from Russian tanks. But most poignant are his observations about the Korean people, the innocents displaced by the violence.

"One morning a North Korean man carried his small son, about 10, into our aid station and asked for help. The boy, along with several playmates, had picked up a hand grenade and somehow had pulled the safety pin. The grenade exploded and all the children except this little boy had been killed. The small boy had both hands blown off and gangrene had set in. Our doctor did what he could. We took up a collection of all the North Korean money the men had accumulated and presented it to the father. The father put the boy on his back and walked off toward the north. We never did know whether the boy lived. One couldn't help prevent the tears from coming as we watched them trudge off.''

Sixty years later, my father's baby boy is now 60 himself — and more appreciative than ever for the sacrifices he and so many other soldiers made. Forgotten War?


Korean War lingers in people's hearts 07/10/10 [Last modified: Saturday, July 10, 2010 1:00pm]
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