For many of the one million eight-hundred-thousand American G.I.s who served there, the battlegrounds of Korea have never been far from the mind. Those who are still with us are in their late 70s or their 80s now; each with his own set of memories and his own way of dealing with them. One can, as many have, wrap them up in a plain, unlabeled mental box and seal them away from family, friends, loved ones and the everyday world. After all, as one veteran has observed, “it is difficult to explain to someone sitting by a warm fireplace that it is cold outside”. Silence is certainly one tactic often employed by Korean War Vets (as with those from Viet Nam as well), who came home to the indifference or open hostility of a nation-at-large with a happier agenda and a sense of history already delineated by the vastness of the so-recent World War II experience.
What happened on that faraway Korean peninsula 60 years ago has never been forgotten by those who struggled there, and now – at long last – many of them are talking about it. To each other. A phenomenon often spoken of as “the digital age” has abetted the “revolution” about which I write today.
My friend Wayne, for instance, lives in a Vermont village 2800 miles away. We have not been in any kind of direct personal contact with each other for more than 42 years, although there was a time when we worked for the same company, and our desks were only feet apart. I don’t think either one of us was aware at the time, of the many parallels which linked us together. For one thing, I don’t think we ever spoke to each other of our respective service in the Korean War. That was not something returning veterans of that period did much of. We know now that during different time periods, we each took up flying, and with the same instructor. We each enjoyed a friendship with Norman Rockwell, and although miles and years apart, we have developed a near-identical interest in history, travel, and writing. Each has lived a life of religious faith, with amazingly similar political and social preferences; and of course we have strong recollections of comrades we both came to know in the industry in which we once labored.
Nowadays, we share email correspondence on a near-daily basis, and through his very large electronic “outreach” many of those commentaries get shared with comrades on three continents and on a wide range of subjects.
Wayne served with the 180th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. 45th Army Division, and witnessed the loss of many of his comrades in the famous battle of Christmas Hill in the last vicious days of combat before the armistice at Panmunjom. By coincidence, my tiny Air Force unit controlled close air support and artillery placement during that bloody campaign, as well as for the Heartbreak Ridge fighting. (It has been aptly noted that Korea began with the mechanized “blitzkrieg” warfare of WW II, but ended with the trench-to-trench warfare of WW I. Wayne and his men were witnesses to those final days of fighting over the ownership of mere square yards of torn landscape.)
At the moment, Wayne and his surviving Korean War “brothers” are deeply involved in re-examining, fighting-hole by fighting-hole, the exact nature of the layout of “Christmas Hill” on that hot July day of 1953 when they were overrun by six Divisions of Chinese troops. Sharing old black-and-white photos scanned from their personal files and aided by the science of today’s “Google-earth” technology, they are vicariously reliving deeply-embedded memories – and, I believe – finding a kind of redemption (*) and renewal through a process the rest of the world is not apt to understand, but which is very real and reassuringly human. I am proud to know, and to have walked with such as they.
Definition to Redeem: to reclaim, recover, regain, repair; to redirect one’s outlook
Caption: Once teen-age “warriors”, now near-octogenarians; but “brothers” still. (Al Cooper photo)