July 27th 2013 marked the sixtieth anniversary of the Armistice Agreement signed at a place called Panmunjom, Korea. For those of us who were there and got to come home because of it, and are still around today, it is a date which over the years still has the power to raise a storm-tide of memories. Almost one third of those returning veterans have already passed on and the rest are leaving us at a rate of 500 each day; an all-too-quiet generation of American warriors who managed to survive what was long called our “forgotten war”.
This Korean Veterans’ Day, I was invited to meet with and address a group of 25 Korean teen-age students – the grandsons and granddaughters of the benighted people whose struggle for survival and freedom we fought for all those years ago. Part of an exchange program which originates from the confluence of American soldiers from southern Utah, and the threatened civilians of Gap Yeong whose survival they had made possible, these young people had come to meet and thank those veterans.
With my good friend and patriotic Korean/American Mrs. Sunny Lee at my side and helping with translation, I resorted to my basic comfort zone as a “story-teller”, relating some of my most personal recollections of an exposure to Korean culture within the context of war. My return to modern-day Korea in 2009 had established a reconnection with memories which had long slumbered, and which have taken on a new life worth sharing with this eager audience whose emotional response was both surprising and deeply humbling.
As I had sat in my office earlier that day contemplating what I might say or do to connect with this group from whom I am estranged by language, years, miles and even generations, my eyes wandered to my “memory wall” where mementos and a talisman or two are constant reminders of the experiences which have helped to shape me. My gaze settled on the military field canteen which had ridden on my web belt for all those bad and good days of my Korean tour, and which had been faithfully filled each morning by Ko Jin Ho (“Sammy”) my teen-age tent house-boy.
It had languished empty and unused for so long that it took a vice-grip tool to open it, and an hour of purging and rinsing to render its rusty interior relatively clean. The more I traced its history in my mind, from the moment I packed my worn and weary barrack bag, to my return to a stateside assignment and a new life, I realized that the very last time I would have had occasion to drink from it would have been that September day in 1953 when “Sammy” filled it for my road trip to Seoul’s Kimpo airport and my flight home.
In the course of my talk with those modern Korean students within the shadows of Utah’s Zion, I told them the story of my emotional reunion with Ko Jin Ho in 2009 and the way our lives had touched in a land and time of constant gunfire and fear. The canteen, now filled with Rockville water lay unnoticed at my feet. Then, for the first time in 60 years, I unscrewed the cap and raised it to my lips with tears seeping from my eyes and my heart overflowing.
At the evening’s conclusion, it was at least an hour before Shirley and I could escape the emotional hugs and picture-taking of these wonderful kids who are younger than our own grandkids, and filled with a newborn sense of thanksgiving for the freedom they are heirs to.
Several of the boys quietly asked to drink from my canteen.
Since almost every piece of equipment we had was left over from WWII, my personal field canteen probably has a history even beyond Korea. Al Cooper photo
Korean teen-age visitors mark the 60th anniversary of their country’s armistice beneath the peaks of Zion National Park. David Suh photo