Korean war vets in US look back with no regrets
Tourists visit the Korean War Veteran Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC, July 26, 2013. July 27 marks the 60th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice agreement and will be marked by a special ceremony in Washington with a speech by US President Barack Obama.
Half of the 468 residents of the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington are veterans of the 1950-53 conflict -- and looking back, they have no regrets.
"I would say it was worth it. We stopped the communists," said Richard Robinson, 82, a New Jersey native who typed up top-secret intelligence reports at 8th Army headquarters in 1952-53.
"I am proud of what we did," agreed Charles Visage, 83, from Savannah, Georgia, a flight engineer on B-29 bombers in late 1951 and early 1952.
"No other nation was going to jump in and help these people out... It was the right thing to do at the right time."
The United States was by far the biggest contributor to the multinational United Nations force that poured into South Korea to roll back a Chinese-supported invasion from the North.
Some 1.789 million US servicemen and women served in Korea, of whom 33,739 died in combat and more than 100,000 were wounded, according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs.
Yet the "police action" -- the United States never formally declared war -- remains what the late US journalist and historian David Halberstam called a "black hole" in the American public memory.
Maybe that's inevitable, given how the Korean War, the first big conflict of the Cold War, was sandwiched between the victory of World War II and the humiliation of Vietnam.
On Saturday, the 60th anniversary of the armistice that suspended hostilities, President Barack Obama will attend a ceremony at the Korean War memorial on the National Mall in Washington.
Across the Potomac River, the Korean War Veterans Association will be meeting in Arlington, Virginia, while local commemorative events are taking place around the nation.
Five residents of the Armed Forces Retirement Home will meanwhile be in South Korea, visiting the Panmunjom truce village deep inside the demilitarized zone or DMZ that splits the Korean peninsula in two.
One of them is Charles Felder, 77, a native of Anderson, Indiana who vividly remembers the day the armistice was signed -- it was the same day he enlisted in the US Marine Corps.
"We came out of the swearing in ceremony and the sergeant came down the hall and said, 'You guys don't have anything to worry about. The war is over'," he told AFP.
Felder, an African-American in the first war in which US forces were not racially segregated, deployed in Korea anyway with the 1st Marine Division in 1954-55.
He remembers the wartime Korean landscape as vast and empty.
"Driving through it on the ground ... you'd probably see a patch of farmland, but most of the time you'd wonder, 'Where are the people?'" he said.
"Barren," agreed Visage, who is also making the trip to South Korea this week, recalling the view from the Plexiglass "greenhouse" nose of a B-29 bomber.
"It looked just as barren from the air as it did from the ground."
"You can't forget that," Felder said, remembering nocturnal patrols along the DMZ. "I don't think I've been anywhere else as cold as Korea."
Contact with local Koreans was minimal.
"We had only one Korean working for us, and he was a mimeograph operator in the unclassified section of the building," Robinson said.
"It was just after Seoul was taken. They were rebuilding and (refugees were) coming back in. There was no place to go to begin with, no restaurants where you could go and socialize."
There wasn't much contact with the rest of the world, either, in an era when anything like the Internet or social media was the stuff of science fiction.
"We didn't have communications like we have today," said Visage, who in civilian life went on to pilot corporate jets.
"Everything that came down, came down locally and stayed with the unit you were with."
The vets recalled the fear of a full frontal assault by Chinese infantrymen, known as the human wave attack, although they never actually experienced it.
"Nobody ever seemed to see them," Visage said. "There was supposed to be a half million of them coming over the hill -- but where were they?"
Looking at Korea today, they're awed by the prosperity and success that defines the South -- and as bewildered as anyone else by the notoriously reclusive North.
"The people are starving, according to the news," Robinson said. "They have nothing up there. All they're doing is putting their money in weapons."
Felder predicted that, "sooner or later, somebody's going to come along" and trigger change in the North.
"You can only stuff so much propaganda down a man's throat into an empty belly," he said.
Founded in 1851, the Armed Forces Retirement Home -- formerly the Soldiers' and Airmen's Home -- hides in plain sight in the heart of Washington, a 320-acre (130-hectare) oasis of lush green parkland that few in the US capital know exists.
It features a clinic, two catfish ponds, a nine-hole golf course, splendid views overlooking Washington and occasional Saturday picnics with families from the adjacent gentrifying neighborhoods of Parkview and Petworth.
It's where President Abraham Lincoln spent a good part of the Civil War, drafting the Emancipation Proclamation in a cottage that still stands, three miles (five kilometers) and a world away from the White House down the hill.
Retired enlisted men and women can apply for a place; a second home for naval veterans is in Gulfport, Louisiana.