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Saturday, July 26, 2003
Posted on Sat, Jul. 26, 2003
Korean War shaped veterans' lives in 50 years since conflict
TAMPA, Fla. - Murdoch Ford was 15 and restless when he lied about his age and joined the Marines in 1950.
He wanted the adventure and the $84 monthly salary a private first class earned to send home to his mother in New Jersey, who was raising four children by herself. He had just turned 16 when he was among the first wave of Marines who stormed into North Korea at Inchon on Sept. 15, 1950.
"I grew up fast," Ford said. "I went from being a 16-year-old boy to being a 16-year-old man as soon as I started seeing corpses."
Eddie Koh was also just a boy when war swept his homeland. He used the limited English he'd learned from Christian missionaries to become a spy for American forces. Orphaned at the war's end, Koh came to the United States after three soldiers he had befriended petitioned their congressman.
Army Sgt. Bob MacLean spent three years as a prisoner of war after being captured by the Chinese at age 18. He buried hundreds of his fellow soldiers who succumbed to frostbite, torture and starvation.
Fifty years later, the men are bonded by the war that shaped their lives and their desire to keep its memories - both good and bad - alive. They often visit local classrooms to share their experiences with students, and Ford will be among a group going on a weeklong tour of South Korea to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the ceasefire.
"The Korean War will go back to being the forgotten war pretty soon," Ford said. "The people who fought in World War II are just about extinct. We're next. I call this our last hurrah."
There are about 1.8 million Korean War veterans nationwide.
Ford, Koh and MacLean don't gloss over the horrors of those years. They share many of the same memories as a group of Korean War veterans who meet privately in Tampa once a week in a post traumatic stress disorder group.
Glenn Smith, the doctor who leads the group, said the Korean War was unique in the experience of American veterans because the country was so quick to move on at the war's end. Many veterans ignored their memories as they set about building careers and families, only to be confronted by them in retirement.
The agreement signed July 27, 1953, was just a truce that did not permanently end all hostilities or lead to peace, and Smith said many vets are quick to point out the shortfall.
"For them, there's a lack of closure. Somehow things were left undone. That adds to the impact of the war on them."
Indeed, the veterans said their memories can be as chilling as the Korean winter that left so many of them with frostbite and which is still causing health problems 50 years later. Ford, now 69, literally shivers when he remembers the Chosin Reservoir battle and its 30-degrees below zero temperatures.
Some of the memories are bittersweet.
MacLean remembers the Korean family forced to house a group of POWs in their home at Christmas time, but forbidden from speaking to the men. On Christmas Day, a small hole appeared in the dirt and straw wall which divided the hut and gradually began to grow larger until a hand reached through to hand the men some food. Words were never exchanged.
MacLean, 71, said he clung to the hope he'd eventually be freed.
"Of course we had hope," he said. "That's the only thing that kept you alive."
When MacLean came home, he married and raised seven children and never mentioned Korea to them until his sons were old enough to consider military service themselves.
"The country was trying to get back on its feet," said MacLean, originally from Malden, Mass. "They were more interested in buying refrigerators and televisions than in Korea."
These veterans refuse to dwell on the death and the destruction. Because they were just kids, they said, they somehow managed to enjoy themselves at least some of the time.
Among Ford's favorite stories is the day a lieutenant came up to him with a letter from the New Jersey Board of Education asking why Ford hadn't been attending school.
"I was a kid. I thought it was fun," said Ford, who learned how to drive a tank before he learned how to drive a car. "It was fun, even when I got wounded."
Ford was wounded in the chest by flying shrapnel when a mortar exploded next to the tank he was driving. It was so cold, he couldn't feel any pain and the blood froze his wounds shut.
He was sent home after 13 months in the war. A year after his return to the states, Ford started coughing up blood. A small piece of shrapnel had hit his lung and been undetected. He spent the next 2 1/2 years in the hospital.
"The happy part of this story was the last year I was in the VA hospital in East Orange (N.J.) ... remember candy stripers?" Ford recalls with a sly smile. "We were married 47 years. She just passed away last June."
For Koh, 69, the war set him on a path he could have never imagined. He said he came to the United States in 1955 with no money and wearing borrowed clothes, feeling obligated to work harder than everyone else to show his appreciation for those who fought.
Koh enlisted in the Army and returned to work in military intelligence in South Korea. He later started an import-export business, which brought him to Florida. Today, he owns a golf course north of Tampa where his neatly appointed office is a shrine to Korean War veterans.
Now, he helps local veterans groups raise money through a tournament at his golf course and helps finance other Korean War veterans projects.
"Time is getting short and we are losing everybody," Koh said. "I want to shake as many hands as I can while they are still living."
For some veterans, the outpouring of thanks from a generation of Koreans made their sacrifices during war worth the cost, MacLean said.
"There has never been a war fought that has the support and the gratitude of the people it helped like the Korean War," he said. "For that reason, I feel like we were the winners."
ON THE NET
Korean War 50th Anniversary: http://korea50.army.mil/
© 2003 AP Wire and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.