Over 400 Korean War Veteran’s names in the U.S. were drawn from as many as 5700 applications to attend the 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the signing of the Armistice, July 27, 1953 in Panmunjom, Korea. My husband Doyle was one of them. They could take any guest they wanted but would be required to pay the guest airfare. All other expenses would be covered in Korea. This event was sponsored by the Federation of Korean Industries (businessmen) who planned tours for about 1,000 veterans and guests (worldwide) representing the 21 countries whose veterans served in Korea from 1950-’53.
Doyle and I(wife)boarded American airlines in Kansas City for a flight to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on July 23rd, 2003 where we transferred to an International 14-hr non-stop flight aboard a Korean Air 747 to Seoul, Korea. The sun never went down as we flew Northwest over Canada and Alaska, the Arctic Ocean and the tip of Russia, then down over the Sea of Japan before turning westward to Seoul.
Our reservations were at the Shilla Hotel, one of “the most luxurious hotels in the world,” they had advertised. In the year 676 the Korean peninsula was united in one kingdom, called the Shilla. This Shilla dynasty is present with its tradition and sophistication in the ambiance of service rendered at the Shilla Hotel. Quite opulent for us country folks, but most certainly enjoyable!
The first event Friday morning was held at the National Cemetery in Seoul. This included a wreath-laying ceremony honoring all who died in the Korean War. Following this we were taken by bus to the War Memorial Museum. In the entrance hall are large plaques with all the names of those who perished during the war. The U.S. names were posted by states, making it easy to find the hometown soldiers(Owen Evans, Ralph Auten, Ivan Groom and Charles McDougal) whose lives ended in that war.
Friday evening we were guests at a banquet sponsored by the USO at the Hotel Grand Hyatt. There were long banners draped around the Hall that displayed the patch of every military unit that fought in Korea. Doyle served with the 2nd Indianhead Division, which still maintains troops at Camp Red Cloud, Korea.
Former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, who was the U.S. representative to the Commemoration ceremonies, was featured speaker this night. Entertainment was provided by Korean Tenor Lim Hyung Joo, who had just returned home from an engagement at Carnegie Hall, USA. He sang a beautiful arrangement of ‘Ave Maria’ and every one present was given a CD of his music to take home. All of the veterans were presented a bound ‘Certificate of Ambassodor for Peace’ signed by General Lee SangHoon, Retired from the Republic of Korea (ROK) Army. A representative from each of the 21 countries was presented the UN Peace Medal and each veteran in attendance was presented a Medal on a ribbon by a member of the ROK Retired Veterans Organization.
In the center of the Hall was a lone table setting with wine glasses inverted and empty chairs signifying that the ‘fallen comrades’ would not be joining us at this commemorative event. A red rose in a glass vase was a reminder of their selfless sacrifice. a soldier played ‘Amazing Grace’ on bagpipes as he walked between the tables for that solemn remembrance.
Saturday morning, our tour went to the Seoul Tower, which is located on a hill in the center of this city of 11 million people. The Tower has a 360 degree observation deck and a revolving restaurant. It boasts a height of 777 ft and can be reached by vehicle, bus or cable car. This was a perfect vantage point from which to view the Economic Development of Seoul in the past 50 years. Doyle remembers going through Seoul in 1950 when it was eerie because the Capital and two other buildings were virtually all that remained standing from the see-saw back and forth of Chinese/South Kerean claims upon the city.
Today there are two tunnels (one nearly a mile long) through the hill the Tower sits upon. They are still building high-rise buildings aggressively and credit the Korean War Veterans for their porsperity and freedom. The feeling is ‘If these veterans had not fought beside ROK soldiers we would be under the control of North Korea today.’
Following lunch at a restaurant of Korean Cuisine, I heard a guitar playing “Peace is Flowing Like a River” outside the door as we left. We arrived at the Korean Folk Village, which is a replica of life in the countryside many years ago. A small Korean boy demonstrated how the A-frame was used to haul loads on their backs….this was a human waste jar that would be dumped in the rice paddies for fertilizer. Our veterans remember this A-frame and the many uses it fulfilled. At the ‘Village’ we saw large kilns under thatched roofs where the beautiful ‘Celedon’ pottery is still made by hand today.
Saturday evening, we were the guests of an Outdoor Barbeque at Lombardy Field, the American Army Post. This was hosted by the Pacific Area VFW of the U.S., The Optimist Clubs Int’l, Overseas Military Sales Organization, American Chamber of Commerce in Korea, Korea Sports Officials Assoc., Korea Chapter of AUSA, United Air Lines and Sargeants Major Assoc. at Yongson Army Base on the edge of Seoul. A few selected veterans were invited to the U.S. Embassy and missed the Barbeque.
Guests were greeted by officers in the chow line and presented 50th Anniversary Medallions from the VFW and a Peace medallion from the United Nations Command. By ‘Special Invitation’ veterans were granted entrance to this event.
Sunday morning July 27, all veterans and guests departed for Panmunjom and the DMZ for the Armistice Signing Commemoration. There was a reception and tour where you could walk around a table and be in North Korea. Surprisingly, they did allow picture-taking.
The next stop on the Sunday Agenda was The World Peace Day Ceremony at the War Museum. Security was extra tight as the President of Korea was also attending. They made me turn on the camcorder to prove it actually was a camera. Doyle had to remove his boots, just like at the airport. The dress was formal for this event. Our evening speaker was the President of the Republic of Korea, Roh Moo-hyun. Part of the affair was the unveiling of a new Korean War Monument at the Museum. It rained on their whole ‘parade,’ but they had furnished all the guests with a plastic poncho in our bag of mementos, so we didn’t get too wet. (We had been encouraged to bring umbrellas three weeks prior to the trip.)
After the official ceremony, a banquet was hosted by the Republic of Korea in the restaurant on the Museum grounds. The rain subsided and piles of pink and green ponchos could be seen where they were dropped upon entering the restaurant. On our way back to our hotel, one of our veterans led us in singing “God Bless America” on the bus. My eyes were not dry during this unexpected burst of American pride.
Monday was a sort of ‘free’ day. Doyle and I spent time at the Yongson Army Base talking with people at the Protocol building and visiting the PX by the special privilege that all Korean War Veterans had been granted. Korean people were so friendly,always bowing and thanking the veterans for their freedom, but even the officers on the Post would stop to shake a veteran’s hand or sit with us in a fast-food place and thank my husband for serving in our military.. It was quite humbling to be treated with so much respect, when many hadn’t gotten that from their home towns when the war ended. I just reflected on the scripture passage: “If you want to live without being afraid of authority, you must live honestly and authority may even honor you.” Rom 13:3
Later, we took a Shilla Hotel bus to the Itaewon Shopping District, where they would accept American money. We ate at a ‘Subway’ restaurant, just like back home. At other locations on that street you could find McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King and OutBack Steak House. We treated ourselves to a Baskin Robbins Ice Cream treat while sitting in front of a shop and watching people and traffic. While I was in the Ice Cream store, Doyle was approached by a Jehovah Witness. That really surprised us.
We arrived back at the Hotel in time to dress for the ‘Blue House’ tour. This was not on our agenda. The First Lady of Korea, Kwon Yang-sook had invited the Veterans to meet with her. Before this could happen, three were Secret-Servicemen boarding the bus to check all passsports with the list of names they had been given. After attaching a special sticker to each of our nametags, we had a Police Escort to the Blue House (same as the White House here). After all of the security…as we approached the Presidential compound, our tour guide, Stephanie, got a call on her cell phone that the First Lady could not meet with us because of an emergency.
Our bus was allowed to tour the compound and the First Lady waved from the Portico above the steps. She made arrangements with the Tour Guides to present us a gift….a Korean fan with the Presidential seal emblazoned upon it. Next we were taken to the Statue of the ‘Phoenix’ on the grounds where a building houses the President’s International gifts. the ‘Phoenix Fountain’ aptly symbolizes the rising of Korea economically out of the ashes of WAR. Nearby we could see protestors with signs. Stephanie said the protests had to do with a railroad project some place in the city.
The Farewell Banquet Monday evening was hosted by the Federation of Korean Industries (who sponsored the trips and event). It was held at the Crystal Ballroom, Lotte Hotel, where some of the Korean War Veterans stayed.
Entertainment was by a trio of young women violin players accompanied by piano. They played ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ All U.S. Veterans stood in unison and sang Our National Anthem facing our flag which was included in the parade of 21 flags across the stage. There were quite a few eyes brimming over after this show of patriotism to our most gracious hosts. A clarinet soloist also had tears on his cheek while playing a special arrangement dedicated to the fallen heroes. (Maybe his father or grandfather was one of them?)
General Leon LaPorte, the Commander of all U.S. Forces in the Republic of Korea (ROK) gave an Address. He was interviewed July 27, the day before, and that News article may be read at usinfo.state.gov/topical/pol/arms/03072811.htm. He spoke to us about the presence of the ROK-US alliance in Korea which has enabled them to ‘enjoy tremendous prosperity as the 13th largest economy in the World.’ Gen LaPorte stated that $2 was spent on this commemoration event.
Addresses were given by the Chairman of the Federation of Korean Industries and also by the Minister of Foreign Affairs & Trade, both attesting to the growing economy and giving credit to the soldiers who fought alongside their ROK forces.
A special Address was given by Koren War Veteran Rodolpho Hernendez, Medal of Honor recipient from the U.S. Army. He gave a wonderful witness to God intervening in his life three times in Korea—the last time all of his unit were killed and he too, was put in a body bag. But he moved a finger or hand and someone saw the bag move. He was taken out and moved to a MASH unit,where his long miraculous recovery began. After being shot and bayonetted , yet he lives, telling others his story, while counseling newer War Veterans of today. There are 20 living Medal of Honor recipients from the Korean War, 52 from WWII and 65 from the Viet Nam war.
Medal of Honor recipients are the real heroes of this age–going beyond the call of duty to ‘make a difference’ in the circumstances in which they find themselves. They have all exhibited great courage and superiority, often thinking of others’ danger when they were gravely wounded themselves. To read their stories, you may find them at homeofheroes.com/hallofheroes/index0.html. Charles Richard Long of Independence, MO, the Forward Observer for Doyle’s Mortar Platoon, may be found on this Memorial Hall web page. The Long family donated their hero’s Medal of Honor (which was awarded posthumously for the ‘Massacre Valley’ battle near Hoengsong/Wonju area) to the Truman Library in Independence, MO.
It had rained for two days and when we left the Lotte Hotel that night we got soaked as our busses could not get close enough for us all to board. We wished we could bring that rain back to Northwest Missouri where we were in a drought area in the Midwest.
On the way to Korea, everything was well organized, special check-in lines for the Korean War Veterans at Baggage or Immigration and Customs counters. At Chicago’s O’Hare Airport we were met by Doyle’s Army buddy, Art Gagnon, who drove us to the International Terminal from American Airlines. Our baggage went from Kansas City to Korea. The Tour busses met us at Inchon Airport and a special envoy of Army, Navy and Marines helped the Veterans get their packets of material and their luggage on the right bus. We are still amazed at the amount of preparation and planning that an effort this large entailed.
Leaving Korea, our tour guide escorted us to the Inchon Airport, where again we had a special line, to get checked in with our luggage. Then we were on our own coming back. We had to claim our baggage at O’Hare in Chicago and find the American Airlines terminal by ourselves. We lost a carry-on bag when we were claiming our other luggage.
The Airport Security put a woman on our case. I went to the Rest Room while the intercom was saying ‘All unattended baggage will be turned over to the Chicago Police Dept.’ I thought we’d never see that case again. However, within about 40 minutes, the lady came with our bag! We were so overjoyed we both gave her a big hug and thanked her. We were happy we still had an hour before catching our next plane home.
We waited again (on board) because an Iranian couple’s little boy was sick. They made five of them get off the plane to protect the rest of the passengers. We wondered what was going on with so many authorities coming on the plane to talk to these people?
Finally we arrived at Kansas City International Airport. Neither of us had flown anywhere in 50 years, so it was with a bit of apprehension that we had gotten on the plane in Kansas City a week earlier. But,that’s when we finally believed we were actually going on this trip. Doyle had never won anything before and said this trip to Korea would be the highlight of his whole life.
We are deeply appreciative of the generous opportunity afforded war veterans to return to Korea by the thoughtfulness of the Federation of Korean Industries. We shall forever be thankful to them for the experience of a most wonderful journey to the ‘Land of Morning Calm.’ It will surely help to calm the disturbing war memories of many Korean War Veterans.