The recent bloodshed in Iraq — ISIS killing civilians, children and even their own people — disturbs anyone who watches the news.
For Overland Park resident John Hense, 89, who served in both World War II and the Korean War as a Navy officer, it’s heartbreaking to see photos of children killed by the terrorists. In his eight months of service in Korea between December 1952 and July 1953, he and his colleagues adopted an orphanage in Pohang — a seaport off the Sea of Japan where the Navy base was — that had been founded and operated by a French missionary priest, the Rev. Deslandes.
“Father Deslandes and his Korean staff took care of nearly a hundred children, and whenever the children saw us coming with boxes of food, toys, donated items, they swarmed around us with open arms,” he said.
His team consisted of a medical doctor who gave physical exams and took care of sick kids and other servicemen who were eager to do whatever they could for the orphans.
Hense shared a bundle of yellowed black and white photos he had kept all these years while he talked about the “unbelievable” condition of the country he had never heard of before he arrived there.
I was familiar with what was captured on the photos — the homes with mud-walls and straw-thatched roofs, the endless dirt roads that turned into mud fields whenever it rained, the bald mountains whose trees had been chopped down by the Japanese.
Hense had served in Korea earlier, in January 1946 at age 19. It was after the U.S. invasion of Okinawa, and this particular time the USS LST-1039 and its crew traveled to Saipan and brought 650 Korean forced laborers abandoned by their Japanese masters to their country. They also rescued Japanese soldiers hiding in deep caves, some didn’t even know that war ended, and took them to their homeland.
I asked him about the situation in Iraq today.
Without hesitation, he said, “We Americans have been in war ever since the World War II ended. Too many Americans fought in too many foreign wars. The war in Iraq … I feel that we pulled out the troops too soon. Though the Korean War lasted only three years, we Americans helped them enough that the people of Korea were able to rebuild from the rubble of the war.”
I couldn’t agree with him more.
I’m particularly grateful to the 34th U.S. president, Dwight Eisenhower. With President Harry Truman’s urging, President-Elect Eisenhower went to Korea in December 1952 and accelerated the peace talks. Eight months later the war ended.
But Eisenhower didn’t pull out all U.S. troops from Korea; he kept 20,000 troops in several different locations in case the communists would strike the South again with the Russian tanks. Had President Eisenhower evacuated all Americans from our country, I am sure the North Koreans would have launched another surprise attack and South Korea would have merged with North Korea in a matter of time.
While questions linger in our minds whether war with Iraq was necessary in the first place, and why President Barack Obama evacuated the entire U.S. ground forces from that country, it’s fair to say that every war comes with its own evil and takes its own course.
Today historians claim that the Korean War discouraged communism from spreading and further helped the Soviet Union to crumble. Who would have dreamed of such changes six decades ago?
Retired musician and freelance columnist Therese Park has written novels about Korea’s modern history.