BY: OLIVIA FLYNN
“Many of my friends were already in the war. I chose to go into the war. I was eighteen years old and didn’t realize what I was getting myself into.”
My grandfather, Richard Stone, served as a soldier in the Navy, during the Korean War. We know him as Poppy, but to his fellow soldiers he was just another one of them. The Korean War was fought in the early 1950s following the North Korean invasion of South Korea. In today’s society, keeping up with global news is effortless and accessible, making it easier to be aware of conflicts. However, the news during the Korean War was few and far between, giving Americans only partial information and little concept of the violence that was taking place on South Koreans. In instances like these, sometimes pure recognition of a horrific event is enough to give voice to those who fall victim to it. Although all events like these should be recognized, you truly don’t understand the toll and damage it can have on someone until it is being inflicted on a loved family member or friend. My grandpa is 86, but no one is ever able to guess that because of his amazing personality that can light up a room. His traditional style is one of the best parts about him, getting up every day to read the newspaper and watch the weather channel, while dressing in his ironed slacks and Sperry loafers. Poppy makes the smallest outings exciting and has tried his hardest to continue our family traditions after my grandma passed away six years ago, which I truly appreciate. Not only am I grateful that I was even able to interview him and share his story, but his message is powerful and meaningful and insightful. His words bear witness to all the Korean voices omitted by the American media at the time, as well as the soldiers who went unrecognized and unheard.
The timing of my interview worked out perfectly because my mom was visiting my grandpa for the weekend when I called. My grandfather lives in Palm Springs most of the year and Michigan in the summer, but was in Palm Springs when our interview took place. I was sitting on my bed, surrounded by pillows, with my sister in her bed next to mine. It was 7:30 at night, and I had just taken a break from watching the Oscars so I wouldn’t miss my opportunity to call him. I called my mom and was oddly enough a little nervous, even though I see my grandpa at least six times a year. My mom answered and put me on speakerphone so that both her and my grandpa could hear the questions, while I briefly explained the assignment. I actually found it helpful that my mom was also part of the interview because she was able to ask even more questions that built off of mine, just out of her own pure interest. Although I couldn’t see the two of them over the phone, I knew that they were sitting at the kitchen table next to each other. Just hearing Poppy’s warm voice made me less nervous, but made me a little bit more reluctant to ask him questions that I feared would upset him or make him sad. I had talked to Poppy about his time in the Korean War prior to the interview, but something about the questions I was about to ask him felt deeper than the ones I would normally ask.
I had talked to my grandpa earlier that day just like I usually do, so it didn’t seem like I was just jumping into the interview, not giving him a warning. I started off with easier questions in the hope that I would slowly ease into the questions that were maybe more difficult to answer. I first asked Poppy, “In what years did you serve in the Korean War?”
He immediately knew the years and answered, “I served from 1951 to 1953.” I moved on to the next question but feared that he would give short answers to all of my questions.
I continued on to ask him, “Did you choose to go into the Navy?”
Showing his prominent sense of humor he replied, “Yes, once I hit eighteen I realized that it was better to sleep in a ship than homeless in a hole. No, but really, many of my friends were going into the Navy as well. It was an overwhelming sense of patriotism that clouded any fears we might have had.” Knowing that my grandpa went into the Navy by choice gave me a sense of closure, simply because he wasn’t being forced to do anything he didn’t want to do. As seen in many wars and genocides, both the victim and perpetrator can be forced to do things against their will, leaving both sides angry, depressed, confused.
Although Poppy had mentioned it in many stories before, I asked him, “Were you given a specific job in the Navy?”
I could hear my mom in the background add, “Yeah, Dad, what were you told to do?”
I recognized the sound of my grandpa shifting in his chair as he faced towards my mom to answer, “Well yes, it was a large group of us rather. We were told to look out for enemy submarines which can be somewhat exciting since you didn’t really know where they were coming from.” I sat for a few seconds in shock, thinking of something to say. I didn’t know how to respond to something that seemed so terrifying yet brave.
I have always had a fear of needles, so my grandpa would tell me how in training they would stick a needle in each arm at the same time in order to vaccinate the soldiers and would then continue down the line. For some reason this made me less afraid when I was younger, knowing that if my grandpa could do it, so could I. Remembering this prompted my next question, “Do you remember any details from the training you went through?”
He took a moment to think and then replied, “When hearing about how the war was affecting Korean citizens, it gives you a new sense of the ‘every man for himself’ mentality. You truly learn how to take care of yourself. You learn how to operate equipment, and then are forced to go to school for six months after boot camp in San Diego. Learning to work potentially dangerous equipment as an 18-year-old was kind of like learning to drive. Exciting, but the thing you’re operating comes with a lot of risks.” Having to learn how to operate dangerous equipment would likely make anyone uneasy about the responsibility that it holds. Typical 18-year-olds are nervous about going to college and moving away from home, having to manage their schedule and money. The fact that my grandpa was only 18 years old and was using life threatening weapons, while not knowing if he would ever return home, is truly remarkable and speaks a lot for the many other soldiers who fought alongside Poppy and weren’t as fortunate enough to tell their stories.
Knowing the smaller details about life in the Navy made me wonder about Poppy’s thoughts on his overall Navy experience so I said, “How do you feel your time in the Korean War either affected you positively or negatively?”
He answered rather quickly, stating, “It was definitely positive. I know that’s not what most war veterans would answer, but I was extremely lucky that I walked away without any life lasting injuries. Overall it taught me how to be organized and led to me getting better grades once I went back to college. I don’t know how else I would have learned those skills if I wasn’t part of the Navy.” I was honestly shocked at how relaxed he was while answering all of my questions, and how he felt that it was an overall positive experience. Similar to forgiveness, I think looking at it in a positive light is a way of being able to move on and not allow such a meaningful event to impact life entirely. If I had been involved in a situation such as this one, I don’t know if I would be able to forgive the people who oppressed me. I think I would hopefully try to but you can never really predict your reaction to such a traumatic event.
Hearing my grandpa’s point of view on entering the Navy made me curious about how his family members felt when he announced his decision. I asked Poppy, “How did your friends and family feel about you entering the Navy?”
Poppy stated that “they were pleased because most of my friends were serving as well. I don’t know if my parents were necessarily proud but more pleased than apprehensive.”
I could hear my mom in the background say, “Gosh I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if one of you went into the Army. I would get way too worried about you.” It’s hard to realize how parents should cope with this type of situation because they are overwhelmingly proud, yet overwhelmingly scared as well. It makes you reflect on how the parents in Korea must have felt when watching their kids experience such violence.
Knowing that my mom was going to ask this next, I jumped in and said, “Were you scared or nervous at all before entering the Navy?”
Being the brave person he is, Poppy replied, “No, not really. I didn’t realize the magnitude of the event before I got myself into it. While in the war you don’t really realize how much is at risk for both sides until years afterwards. Looking back one of the more scarier events was while we were stationed off the coast of Korea and our biggest fear was accidentally hitting a mine. Knowing that we could all be blown up in a matter of seconds definitely put us on the edge of our seats.” Hearing this showed me a new side to my grandpa that I had never seen before. I was honestly wondering how he could have handled an event such as that, seeing as he gets super excited whenever we do something such as going out to dinner. He’s such a mellow person that never gets stressed, so to hear this really shocked me, considering that it completely goes against his organized and ritualistic personality.
I ended our interview by asking Poppy, “How did witnessing this event change your life after the war?” For a moment all I could hear was silence on the other side. Not even my mom was chiming in with her usual follow up questions. The interview had gone so well up until the final question and I worried that the silence meant I had hit a sensitive spot.
We gave Poppy a moment to gather his thoughts when he said, “As most things in history, you don’t realize the magnitude of the event until it’s over. Seeing the newspapers and the memorial that was dedicated to the Korean War in Washington D.C, knowing that you were a part of that, puts you in a state of confusion. I think most of all you feel pride and patriotism, but you also realize that it did cause harm to a lot of people that shouldn’t go unrecognized. I’m glad I was able to help in sharing yet another side to the story. You can never hear too many voices.” I was relieved that his silence was because he was formulating his words and not because I had made him upset. Then I realized that throughout the interview I had continuously questioned whether I was asking the right questions in order to get the best answers, when it wasn’t supposed to be about making me feel comfortable or special. I was merely doing the job that thousands of news channels didn’t do and that was to recognize the event for what it was, a mass murdering.
Although some of my grandpa’s answers were fun or lighthearted, he likes to say that it is the honest and authentic way he viewed the Korean War. While unfortunately being traumatic to many people, the story wouldn’t be complete by just hearing them. In order to bring truth and recognition to events like these in history, we need to look at the event as a whole, hopefully helping to prevent further problems in the future. In order to remember stories like these in the future, we need to take responsibility in sharing them now. In order to give younger generations a meaningful connection to these past events, we need to take advantage of the media platforms we have today. The fact that the Korean War is often referred to as the “Forgotten War” makes me furious and sympathetic for not only my grandpa, but for every soldier and victim that died because they should not be remembered as “forgotten.”