The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

Special Commemorative Issue, November 2002
 
   
 

A Long-Overdue Tribute
The Dedication Of The Korean War Veterans Memorial

By Marc Leepson


The Korean War is sometimes referred to as the "Forgotten War" because it seems to have receded from the national consciousness-eclipsed in large part by the continuing legacy of the Vietnam War. On July 27, the nation paid overdue tribute to the Americans who served in Korea when President Clinton and South Korean president Kim Young Sam helped dedicate the Korean War Veterans Memorial in the nation's capital.

The dedication came on the forty-second anniversary of the armistice that ended the hostilities on the Korean Peninsula in 1953. The Korean War began June 25, 1950, when seven North Korean infantry divisions invaded South Korea. Two days later. President Harry S. Truman authorized American air and naval operations. On July 1, the first American combat troops waded into battle. The brutal, bloody, bitter war came to a stalemate on July 27, 1953, when the warring sides signed the armistice.

Some 5.7 million Americans served in the military during the official Korean War "conflict period." About 1.5 million American men and women served in-country, fighting alongside troops from the Republic of Korea and 15 other nations under the umbrella of the United Nations. More than 33,600 Americans were killed in action; some 20,600 died in accidents and from other noncombat causes. More than 103,000 Americans were wounded in action. The Department of Defense lists 8,177 Americans still missing in action and unaccounted for in Korea; 389 American POWs remain unaccounted for. Nearly 226,000 South Korean troops were killed on the battlefield.

The armistice that was signed 42 years ago did not completely end hostilities on the Korean Peninsula. "It's the only war that isn't over," Greg Player, a spokesman for the Korean War Veterans Memorial Advisory Board, said in an interview. "It still goes on today. There are still troops on the DMZ. There's no true peace. We lost a guy this year, shot down. So the war continues. It's just kind of lingering."

On October 28,1986, Congress passed a law creating a presidential commission to coordinate the building of a memorial to "honor members of the armed forces of the United States who served in the Korean War, particularly those who were killed in action, are still listed as missing in action, or were held as prisoners of war."

The commission, made up of a dozen noncompensated members, fulfilled its duties. The group found a site for the memorial in the nation's capital called Ash Woods. It sits on the other side of the Reflecting Pool from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and near the Lincoln Memorial.

On June 14,1989, the commission selected a memorial design submitted by four Pennsylvania State University architects. The design was chosen during a national competition that drew more than 1,000 entries. The centerpiece of the memorial is a collection of 19 statues of battle-clad combat troops that seem to be moving across a triangular landscape toward an American flag.

The commission raised more than $17 million in private donations to pay for the memorial's construction. Most of the money came from American Korean War veterans and from Korean-American businesses. A special Korean War commemorative silver dollar produced by the U.S. Mint raised $6 million.

Ground was broken for the memorial on June 14,1992. The 19 soldiers, who represent all of the services and ethnic backgrounds of Americans who fought in Korea, are the work of sculptor Frank Gaylord. The memorial also features a 150-foot-long, highly polished granite wall etched with thousands of images engraved by graphic artist Louis Nelson from National Archives photos of support troops. Among those depicted are airmen, nurses, chaplains, artillerymen, sailors, tank drivers, supply personnel, mechanics, and cooks.

Inscribed on a large granite boulder at the memorial's entrance are the words "Our Nation Honors Her Sons and Daughters Who Answered the Call to Defend a Country They Did Not Know and a People They Had Never Met- Korea, 1950-53." The memorial also includes a reflecting pool encircling the flag pole and surrounded by a grove of trees and benches for visitors. An interactive, computerized listing of the war's KlAs, MIAs, and POWs is available to visitors.

The dedication came nearly 13 years after the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial-a situation that reflects the "forgotten" nature of the Korean War. Unlike the Korean War, the war in Vietnam became the most controversial overseas war ever fought by this country. It spawned a large antiwar movement and led to a momentous generational cultural cleavage. Vietnam, the first "rock 'n' roll war," has spawned thousands of books, dozens of movies, numerous plays, and one Broadway musical.

Vietnam forever will be associated with the decade of the 1960s and the tumultuous political and social changes that took place. Korea was fought during the 1950s, without rock and roll, without any type of broad antiwar movement, in an era when the generations did not go to war against each other over the merits of American participation in an undeclared war.

There have been very few Korean War films or plays. The volume of Korean War literature is minuscule compared with the literature of Vietnam-or that of World War II or the American Civil War, for that matter.

On the other hand, the Korean War never has been a "forgotten" war to the nation's 4.5 million Korean-era veterans-especially in the last decade. "At first, everybody just wanted to forget," Greg Player said. "And now, we're all in our 40s and 50s, and we want to remember."

"We, who were there, remember," said Korean War veteran Franklin Kestner in the introduction to his Korean War memoir. The Last Man.

The 1982 dedication and instant popularity of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial turned out to be an important factor in helping Americans remember the forgotten war by creating a national memorial to those who fought in Korea. The creation of the Wall, Player said, was the impetus for getting the Korean memorial off the ground. "Korea was very similar to the Vietnam War [in that] it was a 'conflict' and not a war," he added. "Once the Vietnam Veterans Memorial went up, it was a catalyst and really launched the Korean War Memorial."

The Wall also spurred another group of American war veterans into action on the national memorial front. The next memorial to be dedicated in Washington, DC, will be the World War II Veterans Memorial. Scheduled dedication date: sometime in 1998.

   

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