The Korean War Veterans Memorial
And now, in 1989, I was spending eleven days in
South Korea almost four decades after my father served there. I had taken my Christmas bonus pay and bought a ticket on Korean Air
Lines. The Korean War drew me like a magnet.
My father did not know I was going to his battlefield in Korea. We don't talk much anymore. I guess we never did. I guess we never will. It will always
1984, I founded what would become the national Korean War Veterans Memorial Fund. By
that time, I had learned about the silent treatment given to Korean War veterans, and I was angry. In trying to find out about my father, my eyes were opened to a forgotten war. I could hardly believe
David Christian, of Washington's Crossing, Pennsylvania, a lawyer and highly decorated veteran of Vietnam, set me straight. Christian said to stow the anger, think positive, think logically,
hold it all in, make it happen. Christian was right, of course.
A great deal went on behind the scenes .
Congress wasn't sure about a Korean War Memorial. A telephone friend, Bill Temple, of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, decided we would confront Congress in
April, 1985. Temple saw vicious combat in Korea serving with the U.S. Army 38th Infantry Regiment. We met for the first time on a Friday morning, and set off for Capitol Hill.
With only one day to
convince key members of the House of Representatives that a Korean War Memorial should be built, we literally ran from office to office. One aide was rude, and I thought Temple would explode.
Days later, the Korean War Memorial became an issue in the House of Representatives. A month later, Temple and I returned to Washington to lobby the Senate. I used my mortgage payment to pay for the
plane ticket. By this time, I was obsessed.
President Reagan signed the Korean War Veterans Memorial Act into law on October 28, 1986. I played a small part alongside hundreds of common Americans
who refused to forget Korea.
North Of Yanggu
The South Korean government finally agreed to let me go to my fathers' battlefield at Heartbreak Ridge. I left Dallas on February 10, 1989.
At the South
Korean Ministry of Defense in Seoul, I met my escort officer, Lieutenant Kim Won Hyung.
We set off for Heartbreak Ridge in a Ministry of Defense sedan. Three hours later at Chunchon, it was lunch time. In
Korea, life stops for lunch. Lieutenant Kim was surprised I could handle chop-sticks so well. I didn't tell him I had only used the sticks twice before, or that I was new to Korean food.
Chunchon, we left the paved highway, and for 74 kilometers bumped and crashed along a rough dirt Korean mountain road, the same road North Koreans used to attack South Korea in 1950. We
arrived at our destination, Yanggu, late in the afternoon.
At the 24th Tiger Division, I met the commander of the unit defending Heartbreak Ridge. The Koreans were all very cordial and offered me
ginseng tea. We made small talk, but I was sitting on the edge of my seat.
Eight of us piled into two Jeeps and set off. Passing tank traps, emplacements, more tank traps, we entered a narrow
valley only a few yards wide. The Suipchon, only a creek, was frozen. It reminded me a great deal of Boulder Canyon in Colorado.
A sign ahead said Loaded Weapons Area
in English. We stopped at a barricade and were issued blue armbands of the United Nations Military Armistice Commission. Soldiers placed a blue flag on the bumper of the jeep.
The Korean Intelligence
officer with me asked me if I were nervous. I blurted out something incomprehensible, and he smiled.
The jeep ground into first gear. We bumped up the rough dirt road. Snow lay only on the northern
exposures. The single lane followed the creek bed. This was no highway, just a track. It took more than courage to fight up this road in 1951.
After climbing higher, I sighted an observation
post outlined on a ridgeline. It was rugged country. We lurched into a parking area behind the positions on the military crest.
A flat space was plowed on the ridge, and a series of concrete
bunkers were built. We all trooped out from the Jeeps. I was here, where my father won the Silver Star. By this time, the Koreans were as excited as me.
A glassed-in observation room rested on a
forward slope. I remember we had to climb up several very high steps, then across an open space to the room. Inside, a Captain served ginseng tea.
Through a camouflage curtain lay North Korea. In shock, I
looked out to the place where my father flew his helicopter 38 years earlier. All of us were talking at once, pointing here and there in total confusion.
They understood me.
Lieutenant Kim suggested we
climb atop the observation post, so we all grabbed the rails. I was still in shock, but I set up my Nikon on the roof and took a photograph after the Korean intelligence officer looked through the lens.
The Koreans seemed to understand I wanted to be alone, so all but
one officer went below. I stood there in the cold winter wind, burning into my mind the emotion I was feeling.
I could see forever from where I stood. Rugged mountains stretched in all directions. I
wondered how a man could fight for this place and retain his sanity. The ridges were razor sharp, no more that three or four feet wide, sloping upward at angles of 45 to 60 degrees. The 23rd Infantry scraped
and pulled themselves up thousands of feet to capture the high ground under withering fire. It was unbelievable.
Hill 931 was 150 yards away, and I asked Lieutenant Kim if I
could climb to the peak. The Korean officers with me started to climb ahead, but I rushed past them in great haste. I made the peak. I was living a dream, and the Koreans understood. Later, Lieutenant
Kim told me my face looked very cold and drained, as if I had shut out everything and everyone.
I was standing 600 yards inside the Demilitarized Zone at a point where no American civilian had stood since
the war. Lieutenant Kim told me no one else would be allowed to make this trip. He said, "This trip is just for you. We wanted it to happen just for you. You will remember our country."
The top of Hill 931 was flat for only a few square yards. A steel
identification panel faced toward South Korea. I asked Lieutenant Kim if I could bury the Purple Heart on the peak. One of the Korean officers brought an entrenching tool, but he unsuccessfully banged
away at the frozen ground. Lieutenant Kim came up to say the officers would bury the medal in the spring-time, the ground was frozen now.
I asked him if I could throw the medal off Hill 931.
The lieutenant spoke with his comrades, and they said, "Yes, it would be an honorable thing to do."
The Koreans said I would be throwing the medal into a mine field, that the
medal would lay there forever, a reminder to them that America had fought for South Korea at a place called Heartbreak Ridge.
Through the deep snow, I walked back to the bunkers. Lieutenant Kim said the
commander of the ROK unit on Heartbreak Ridge would like to meet me if I wished. I said, of course, and we filed into a small room on the peak of the ridgeline. The commander gave me a gift of Buddhist
prayer beads, and a leather snap ring of the 24th Division.
Down from Heartbreak Ridge, the Intelligence officer asks me how I felt. I can explain nothing. I walk around the question. A few minutes
later, I ask him the same question. He tells me it is too complex to discuss now, we need to talk much later.
From Yanggu, our Korean Marine driver drove Lieutenant Kim and I to the Korean east
coast where we would stay the night at Sok-chu. We arrived at a huge condominium project, and checked in. Lieutenant Kim and the driver were still formal with me, still not understanding this
strange American who had come to stand on mountaintops in Asia. The Koreans were not used to an American so willing to understand their country and their customs.
All Photos this page Copyright Hal Barker, 1995