BY: YUJU SHIN
“I just wanted all of them to be dead. I wanted to end the war. Blood splattered on my face whenever I killed someone. There were dead bodies everywhere.” As my grandfather started to break down, the silence of pain and nervousness came. I did not know what to say as the situation became more extreme. We just held on to our phones and said nothing. I could feel my grandfather’s spirit and soul as I heard his heavy, experienced breathing.
Every weekend, I call my grandparents in Korea to say hello. When my English teacher Ms. Gonzalez introduced the Interview Project and told us to find a refugee or a war veteran, my grandfather, Im-Chun Lee, came up to my mind. My grandfather, who turned eighty-five two months ago, served in the Korean War sixty-four years ago, in 1950. After serving in the war, he worked as a police officer and now retired, he lives peacefully with my grandmother in a small apartment in the city of Daegu. Since I was young, he never talked about his war experience and always avoided topics related to it. Because I wasn’t exposed to a lot of war stories and never saw other war veterans talking about it, I thought Koreans were ashamed of their past. The only source where I acquired information about the Korean War was from my school history textbooks and documentaries that are played every year on the commemoration day. I wasn’t sure if it would be fine to interview my grandfather because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings and make him depressed. However, I wanted to hear the real story from a witness, not through words of non-living objects. In September, I stepped up and called my grandfather for permission. Fortunately, he said yes and I promised him that I would call him in October.
For a little bit of background before I start, the Korean War started on June 25, 1950, at 4 a.m. Before, Korea was divided into two countries after Korea gained independence from Japan in 1945. The North was supported by the Soviet Union, and the South was assisted by the United States. On the day of the war, North Korean forces led by its new leader, Il-Sung Kim, invaded South Korea. The war ended in 1953, taking ten million souls and establishing the Korean Demilitarized Zone and Military Demarcation Line. Unlike other wars, the Korean War was a war between a homogeneous ethnic group, sharing the same roots of culture, food, and language. It is the most painful memory in the Korean history, because one country was split into two enemy countries.
On October 14, I was making up my mind whether if I should call my grandfather or not. To be honest, I was scared to interview him and kept postponing the day of the interview. I lay down on my bed and covered my face with a pillow not knowing what to do, but I knew that I would eventually have to make this interview before the fall break was over. When I looked at the clock, it was 3:20 p.m., which meant it was 7:20 a.m. in Korea. I didn’t call him right away even though I had nothing else to do because I did not want to ruin my grandfather’s day by bringing up his bloody memories. At 11:30 p.m. in Pacific Daylight Time, I sat on my bed, covered my body with a blanket, held a pencil and a piece of paper, and picked up my phone to dial my grandparents’ phone number. I felt cozy and comfortable with dim lighting in my room. It was 3:30 p.m. in Korea, and I finally pushed the call button. My nervousness increased as the beep sound continued.
“Hi Yuju! How are you? I’ve been waiting for you to call me,” he said with excitement. As usual, we told each other the latest news about our lives and any interesting stories. When we were done with sharing our stories, I asked him if this is a good time for him to share his war memories and he said yes.
“Grandpa, I heard it’s really cold in Korea! Is it true?” I asked. I didn’t want to start my interview just straight with my questions. I didn’t want to bring him down, so I tried to avoid using stimulating words like “the Korean War” or “deaths.”
“Yes, summer is gone in Korea. Leaves are falling and it will snow soon,” he said. “Your mom told me that it’s still hot in the United States.”
“Was it this cold during the war?” I was supposed to ask this question later in the interview, but I thought it would be a good transition to the interview.
“Now I think about it, there were a lot of funny memories during one of the winters and now I can smile about it. One day, I was only wearing my underwear and I had to get trained. I was always cold and hungry. Even though the food we had to eat was gross, everything looked delicious to me. I even found this bland soup with nothing in it taste like heaven! I don’t miss it because now it would taste bad. I have better food to eat.”
“I bet you don’t miss those soups anymore. Um, what was your first reaction to the war?”
“My family and I lived in Paju, which is an hour north from Seoul. It was a peaceful Sunday. If there were no guns firing, I would be sleeping peacefully with my brothers. Before the sun was up, I heard bombs exploding from the northern mountains, and when I looked out the window, everything was chaos. People were running around to nowhere with their belongings on their backs. I stayed home with my family hiding in our bedroom. I was only nineteen years old and I was really scared.”
I didn’t feel like asking more questions because I could already feel that he did not want to talk about it. However, I wanted to finish my task without giving up, so I continued and asked, “How did you end up joining the military?”
“Bombs dropped in front of my house and we all panicked with dust covering our faces. I was a student at that time, and everything seemed bizarre to me. I was still wearing my school uniform, and a soldier gave me a gun. No one ever taught me how to shoot, so I just held it not knowing what to do. I still remember this. Where I lived was one of the first places to get attacked, and all men in my town had to fight. Most of them were amateurs. I can still remember because I mean, how can I forget? I had to watch my friends and brothers die,” he said. “My eyes became watery and hot as I saw rivers turning into blood.”
When these severe words came out of his mouth, I could see his mournful soul struggling to fight against his painful memories. However, his voice was so deep and confident that I saw light in it. He was fearful, but still hopeful.
“Can you talk about your experiences during the battle?” I asked hesitantly. I realized that I was still scared to ask him questions because I didn’t want to hear his response. I worried that his answers would hurt both of us, which I didn’t want. I really wanted to stop the interview, but another part of myself didn’t let me.
“I had many roles and I moved from place to place. At first, I fought as a foot soldier near Seoul, killing North Koreans. As I told you earlier, I did not have any experience with guns and I was really scared. Later, when they sent me to Daegu, I got a different job. I was trained until the North Koreans got here, and my mission was to kill North Korean spies. I had to kill many,” he said. Even though I couldn’t see his face, he sounded tired and depressed already. I imagined him sitting on a sofa holding my grandmother’s hands.
“How did you feel?”
“When my friend died, I didn’t have time to get sad because everything went crazy. I didn’t have time to think and when he was shot, I just looked at him and went on with my battle. It would be a lie if someone became upset about it because clearly, no one had time to think. I just had to fight. When my fellow soldier was shot, I thought I could die anytime. It was real. I never thought this would happen to me, but this was the reality. I couldn’t believe the situation I was in, but everything I saw and heard was about the war.” He paused for a few seconds and continued, “When I was fighting, I was not afraid of death. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to see my family again. I had to live and survive for my family and myself. I can still imagine people screaming and dying. There were a lot of dead bodies that I can remember.”
Then he suddenly said, “I just wanted all of them to be dead. I wanted to end the war. Blood splattered on my face whenever I killed someone. There were dead bodies everywhere.”
Again, there was a moment of silence. My eyes became watery and I lost my words. On my bed, not knowing what to say, I heard my grandfather’s heavy breathing and weeping. I felt pain in my heart while asking these questions, but I continued.
“Do you regret what you did?”
“No. That’s what I had to do for my country. Everyone who fought should be proud of what they did,” he said and stopped. It seemed like he did not want to talk more about it. I already could feel that his memories were torturing him, and I knew it was hard for him to take it. I finalized the interview with my last question.
“Do you have any thoughts?”
“I just want you to know that I am proud that I fought in the Korean War. I am not ashamed of what I did. I feel sorry for my brothers and friends who died. Sometimes, I have nightmares about it and wake up in the middle of the night screaming, but I don’t regret what I did during the war. Every June 25th, I become sad and tearful. In my mind, the war isn’t over yet, but it will remain forever in my heart. It wasn’t my choice that I had to kill my enemies, and it wasn’t their choice either. We are all the same and everyone was a witness to death.”
Our interview ended when my grandfather started to sound like he was going to cry. He was a strong and hopeful man. It was really hard for me to listen to his story, and I can’t believe that this really happened. My grandfather had to kill innocent people who were just the same as him. He also had to witness others getting killed, and they all had families. Because he is my grandfather, I could feel a greater connection to the war and sense how the soldiers had to deal with the struggles they faced during the war. When my grandfather said that war itself was not something we should be proud of, but what the soldiers did is something we shouldn’t be ashamed of, I realized that he was giving me a lesson on how it’s important to be proud of what I do. I am proud that my grandfather fought in the war and glad that I got to interview him. If I had to interview other war veterans, it would have been really hard because I don’t like hurting people’s feelings and making uncomfortable situations.
Currently, no one talks about the war in Korea, and it seems like younger generations don’t have connections to it. Later, the Korean War will be gone from people’s hearts forever since there aren’t a lot of books based on the war or interviews with war veterans. When I heard my grandfather’s story, I thought more people should talk about it, because these shouldn’t be forgotten in our history. Before I interviewed him, I, like other younger Koreans, thought that it is just a story and a history that no longer lives in my heart. My grandfather’s story was authentic, and if more war veterans share their experiences, more people would take interest. These stories teach people valuable lessons that they should be proud of what they do.