Veterans Day coincides with Armistice Day, the day when World War I ended.
A year after the war’s end, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that Nov. 11 of every year should be remembered with a “solemn pride” for those who died for the freedom of their countrymen. In 1938, Armistice Day was approved by Congress and became a national holiday. It was an act of Congress in 1954 — in the aftermath of World War II and Korea — that expanded the holiday to honor all veterans.
Veterans Day isn’t only to remember those who served their country at the cost of their lives but also those who held the torchlight for them so that the general public could recognize and honor the veterans. In such a case, Koreans would say, “A candle wick can’t burn by itself: it needs candle wax to feed it.”
Of those who played the role of candle wax for veterans, I respect First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt the most. And not only because Mrs. Roosevelt was the first lady who lived in the White House the longest, from 1933 to 1945.
While visiting Washington, D.C., last month with 92 veterans from World War II and the Korean War as part of a Heartland Honor Flight, I had the privilege of visiting the FDR Memorial and saw Mrs. Roosevelt’s bronze statue standing alone, looking at the sprawling field ahead of her. Inspired by the recent PBS documentary “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” produced by Ken Burns, I read “Not an Ordinary Time,” an FDR biography and learned much about the 32nd U.S. president and his wife.
Among many remarkable qualities Eleanor Roosevelt possessed, I admire her courage to speak her mind, her compassion for the poor and underprivileged citizens, and mostly, the devotion and love she showed young American soldiers fighting abroad for their country, including her four sons.
She was not at all like the other first ladies I’ve read about. Eleanor Roosevelt paid no attention to glamour or popularity. She became the eyes and ears for her president-husband, who suffered devastating physical disabilities as a polio sufferer and couldn’t travel much. She visited remote American towns, farms and factories during the Great Depression, and later, during the war, she went abroad to comfort young Americans fighting in the Pacific against the Japanese.
An attempt to visit Europe for the same purpose, however, was criticized by the Roosevelts’ opponents, who claimed the first lady was spending too much taxpayers money by visiting soldiers.
A scene in the documentary where Mrs. Roosevelt sat with young soldiers at a camp touched me. The thought that those young soldiers whom Mrs. Roosevelt had comforted are old today, and that some of them might have gone to Washington on Oct. 7 with the Heartland Honor Flight team, including myself, caused me feel close to Mrs. Roosevelt.
At the FDR Memorial, a thought struck me hard: Mrs. Roosevelt and I have something to talk about!
I boldly told her that we Koreans never liked her uncle Theodore Roosevelt because he handed over Korea to Japan in 1905 after his successful negotiation to achieve an armistice for the Russo-Japanese War between 1904 and 1905. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for that, but, as a Korean, I pointed out that he was responsible for Japan’s occupation of Korea in the fall of 1905, followed by 40 years of colonial rule.
“But President Franklin Roosevelt liberated us,” I said, “and all colonies of Japan by sending U.S. troops to the Pacific! We can’t thank you enough, Mrs. Roosevelt!”
Mrs. Roosevelt calmly listened, so I continued. “In such a case, the Koreans would say, ‘One Roosevelt gave us death but the other Roosevelt resurrected us.’ But I am grateful for the positive beginning President Roosevelt offered us by liberating us from Japan in 1945.”
She laughed, “It’s all in the family, dear!”
I could not laugh. I told her we had a war with the Communists in the early 1950s but with American troop sacrifices, we not only survived the war but became a stronger nation and that her “Honor your veterans” spirit truly touched many, including me. I rambled on about my affiliation with the local Korean War Veterans Association over the years and the trip to Washington as a guardian. I also informed her “who’s who” in the group — the former president of the team who’s still serving as a guardian, a female retired colonel who serves as one of the key members, and an artist who regularly donates his paintings of WWII American fighter planes to veteran-related events.
I asked, “If you were with us today, Mrs. Roosevelt, what would you be doing?”
“I’d be supporting veterans. I’d be flying with them to Washington every year. They deserve our support!”
Retired musician and freelance columnist Therese Park has written three novels about Korea’s modern history.