Remembering the ‘Forgotten War’

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.”

I Am Proud of Myself

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.