Because of the pouring rain, this year’s Memorial Day ceremony for the Korean War Veterans Association Overland Park chapter took place indoors, at the Tomahawk Ridge Community Center next to the Veterans Memorial at 119th Street and Lowell Avenue, but about 80 people in wet clothes still gathered to honor 415 Kansans who died during what’s known as the Forgotten War.
Believe it or not, the first Memorial Day sort of service was offered in May 1865 by former slaves in Charleston, S.C., at the end of the Civil War, two weeks after Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated. Thus, Memorial Day carries with it a piece of African-American history.
The ceremony on Monday began with the national anthem sung by a Korean-American, Un Chong Christopher, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance and a note that July 27 will mark the 60th anniversary of the armistice on the Korean peninsula.
Association president Tom Stevens said a veteran is someone who has written a blank check to the United States of America, even at the cost of his or her life. The Kansans whose names are engraved on the red granite wall at the memorial in Overland Park, Stevens said, left their home state as young men in response to their nation’s call to defend the freedom of the faceless country of South Korea.
Lt. Col. Kwangsoo Kim, a Korean Army liason officer, drove in from Leavenworth for the ceremony in Overland Park. He talked about the bloody battle South Korea fell into on June 25, 1950, when North Korean Communists launched a surprise attack across the 38th Parallel, brothers killing brothers. As he moved onto the sacrifices American troops made during the war, he mentioned two names — Capt. Emil Kapaun and Lt. Col. Don C. Pace Jr.
Kapaun was a Catholic chaplain who died in May 1951 in a North Korean prison. President Barack Obama awarded him the Congressional Medal of Honor on April 11 for his personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty. Pace fought and died in the battle of Chosin Reservoir, Kim said, which was the most difficult battle of the Korean war. Kim said Pace showed exceptional courage, warmth and love toward his battle comrades until his last breath.
“South Korea is no longer a poor country you saw back in the 1950,” Kim said in an energetic voice. “Our country is now the world’s eighth-largest economy, fifth in car manufacturing, third in industrial construction, first in ship building, first in semi-conductor production.”
As he went on, fragments of my memories of the summer of 1950 rushed back to me. A day after the news of the Communists’ invasion of the South reached Pusan, then my hometown, we kids lost our school building to the South Korean Army, which needed space to shelter injured soldiers transported from the battlefield.
The fall semester opened on bare dirt, behind a Buddhist temple on a mountain, where cows, pigs, ducks and chickens paraded through our classroom. We had no walls, no roof, no blackboard, desks or chairs. Whenever it rained, we scrambled down to head home, skidding on the wet dirt. But on a bright sunny day, we enjoyed watching American troopships afloat off the distant shore, occasionally blaring their horns that sounded to me like “Come with us to America!”
The American airplanes heading north gave us hope. Always in the form of the letter “V,” signifying victory, they flew over our heads every day, sometimes one or two dozen, sometimes twice as many. And I can never forget the American soldiers I saw on the street, who shared their ration cans or candy with refugees who thrust dirty hands toward them, muttering in their broken English.
As the ceremony on Monday ended with the “Battle Hymn of Republic” sung by the trio of Sungho Ahn, Young-woo Lee and Jeha Lee, I was thankful for this Memorial Day, which gave me another occasion to say “Thank you America!” My sentiment was echoed by a Korean dentist who wrote me: “I had a feeling of awe when I stood in front of Old Glory, the silent witness of the U.S. troops’ sacrifices in our country a long time ago. We Koreans are forever-grateful.”