Korean War vets honored in North Shore ceremony
The moment in 1991 when Ed Stevens made it his mission to ensure that history does not forget the sacrifices of his fellow Korean War veterans is etched in his memory.
“I was watching President (George H.W.) Bush give a speech on TV about the importance of honoring our veterans,” said Stevens, 81, of Collier. “He mentioned World War I, World War II and Vietnam but never said a word about Korea. It knocked me out of my chair. I thought, I’ve got to do something.”
Stevens, who served as an Army machine gunner, founded the Korean War Veterans Association of Western Pennsylvania. He led the charge to raise $1.2 million to build the Korean War Veterans’ Memorial on the North Shore, dedicated in 1999.
About 150 people braved a fierce thunderstorm on Saturday morning at the memorial to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of fighting on July 27, 1953, with the signing of an agreement to restore the border between North Korea and South Korea. A formal peace treaty has never been signed.
Ceremonies also were conducted in Butler and Greensburg.
Veterans of the Korean War, often referred to as America’s “forgotten war,” express disappointment over the lack of recognition they received after returning home.
There were no ticker tape parades, campaigns to hire returning veterans or even widespread acknowledgment of the sacrifices that were made, veterans say.
“If people had paid half as much attention to us as they did the World War II vets, it would have been fine, but they just ignored us,” said Charles Thompson, 82, of Arlington, who served as a radio operator in the Air Force.
“Back then, I would not have worn this,” Thompson said as he pointed to the navy blue cap with the words “Korea Veteran” he now wears proudly.
Don McIlrath, 80, of Penn Hills, who served in the Army during the Korean War, said returning vets were even shunned by some military fraternal organizations, such as the Veterans of Foreign War.
Korean War veterans had fought under the United Nations’ command. The United States never declared war on North Korea.
“They didn’t even consider (Korea) a real war,” said McIlrath, president of the 300-member Korean War veterans group that Stevens started.
“They’d call it a police action or a conflict. They really didn’t want us. I guess we should be thankful we weren’t treated as badly as the guys who came back from Vietnam, but for many years we really never got the recognition for the sacrifices we made,” McIlrath said.
The words “police action” and “conflict” bring out a bit of the old staff sergeant in Stevens.
“That’s bull,” he barks. “When you’re in combat and people are dying and being wounded, it’s a war.”
Some 1.8 million Americans, including about 200,000 Pennsylvanians and 26,000 from the Pittsburgh area, served in Korea. Nearly 37,000 servicemen lost their lives and more than 103,000 were wounded during three years of fighting.
While North Korea remains a threat — as recently as March it threatened to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the United States — veterans do not believe their efforts were wasted.
“Our mission was to push the communists out of South Korea, and we did that,” said Charles Marwood, 83, of Brentwood, who served on Navy carriers during the war. “If we had failed to do that, the communists would have taken over South Korea and from there, who knows what they would have done. I’ll never regret spending four years in the Navy for my country.”
Veterans say South Korea’s growth into a world economic power and trusted United States ally is a great sense of pride.
“It’s turned into a phenomenal country, and it feels good to know we were able to help them achieve what they have,” McIlrath said. “When I visited Korea in 1998, people would come up to us on the street and thank us for our service. It was a very moving experience.”
Yoon Yeon-jean, a consul with the Consulate General of South Korea in New York, spoke at the Butler ceremony honoring Korean War veterans. He said the U.S. efforts allowed South Korea to grow.
“Thanks to the sacrifice and the devotion of the U.S. armed forces, we could make economic development and prosperity. Their sacrifice means a lot for us,” Yeon-jean said.
Marwood said the expressions of gratitude from Korean-Americans have helped vets restore pride in their service.
“You just can’t believe how thankful the Korean people are,” Marwood said, his eyes welling with tears after reading a card he recently received from a couple whose parents emigrated from Korea.
Sam Lee, president of StarKist’s Pittsburgh operations, who participated in the North Shore memorial service, said the company was “honored” to help local veterans mark the milestone.
“StarKist’s parent company, Dongwon Group in Korea, was able to build its business through the peace that was brought to Korea, thanks to the Korean War veterans,” Lee told the Tribune-Review. “We are forever grateful for the selfless sacrifices made by these brave veterans, and we are humbled to be a part of such an important milestone,” Lee said.
Tony LaRussa is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7987 or [email protected].