Old Soldier remembers Korean Armistice

PRESIDIO OF MONTEREY, Calif. -- July in Korea--the typically hot and humid summer month in the middle of monsoon season was unusually dry and pleasant in 1953. I was a first-grade schoolboy living amidst the rubble and devastation left in Seoul. I was also still overwhelmed by the loss of both parents just three years prior, during the beginning of the so-called "Forgotten War."

I had been watching frequent protests and rallies in and around "Tapgol Park," an area near my school historically known as the national protest site. The slogans and outcries were to continue the war and stop the Cease Fire Agreement between the United Nations and North Korean forces. Protesters screamed that such an agreement would create a divided Korea and political instability in the peninsula. I clearly remember watching protesters bite the ends of their fingers to draw blood in order to write these protests in Hangul (Korean Phonetic Alphabet) and Hanja (Chinese Character) on cloth banner sheets. The emotional crowd chanted, "We oppose the Cease Fire, we need to unite the peninsula at all costs." These demonstrations occurred for several weeks before and after the Cease Fire Agreement.

On July 27, 55 years ago, a cease-fire is exactly what happened. The United Nations (represented by the United States), Communist China, and the North Korean delegates signed the document, thus creating the Armistice at that very moment. South Korea was not one of the signatories.

As I look back, I realize that nearly 37,000 Americans and more than a million Koreans, including my parents, died in a period of three years. I wonder how many more would have been killed if the Cease Fire had not been declared. As a Korean-American, my heart goes out to those brave American Soldiers and Airmen who traveled thousands of miles away from their loved ones and perished in a strange land called "The Land of the Morning Calm." On behalf of all Koreans, I want to assure those honorable men of the United States Armed Forces that their sacrifices did not end in vain. Their selfless dedication and loyal service to protect Freedom and Democracy are appreciated more than they realize.

During the war, many battles were fought in places such as Suwon, Osan, Taejon, Pusan Perimeter, Inchon Landing, Liberation of Seoul, Heartbreak Ridge, Punchbowl, White Horse, Chorwon Valley, Kumwha and Iron Triangle. Many other events followed as the two sides decided to exchange the wounded and live Prisoners of War soon after the Armistice. US Army Sikorsky CH-19 Chickasaw helicopters ferried many POWs from Panmumjom to a landing site smack in the middle of a Seoul schoolyard. This schoolyard was only a half-mile from where I lived with my grandparents. After the cloud of dust settled, I could see the astronaut-like pilots who flew these strange creatures, and they fascinated me to no end. I looked for these funny-looking flying machines with intense curiosity whenever I had the chance.

Many years later, as fate turns out, I was to immigrate to the United States with the help of foster parents and the international Pen-Pal Club family sponsorship. I soon made my dream come true and became a U.S. Army helicopter pilot, returning to my motherland twice flying distinguished visitors to historical sites and coordinating the Team Spirit war games. In December of 1969, I had the pleasure of flying Bob Hope and his entourage in a UH-1 Huey helicopter from the Yongsan helipad to Osan Air Base for his annual Christmas USO tour of Korea.

In my second tour, 1976 to 1977, I flew CH-47 Chinook helicopters out of Camp Humphreys and almost observed a second Korean War. While trimming a tree which to clear the view between checkpoints, two fellow U.S. Army officers, Capt. Arthur Bonifas and 1st Lt. Mark Barrett, were brutally beaten and hacked to death by North Koreans at Panmumjom on Aug. 18, 1976. It was known as the "Axe Murder Incident." We went to the highest defense condition and my unit's helicopters were to extract the US, Korean and third country VIPs at the pre-selected landing sites--again, smack in the middle of Seoul. I had brought my wife and first child (who was born in Germany) to Pyongtaek as non-command-sponsored dependents. I told my wife to grab the NEO (Noncombatant Evacuation Operation) packet, head for Osan Air Base, and that another real McCoy Korean War is about to break out.

Our troops retaliated with Operation Paul Bunyan. UNC engineers (most were actually disguised South Korean Special Forces Commandos, all martial arts experts) were flanked by a company of tough U.S. infantrymen (commonly known in the Army by their MOS, 11B) and protected by AH-1 Cobra helicopters, M-60 tanks, heavy artillery, and numerous high performance Air Force jets circling overhead. Under this heavy protection, we went back to the site and cut down the tree instead of trimming it. It was a very close call to another Korean War.

On a more recent assignment to Osan Air Base as a DOD civilian employee, I escorted the Secretary of Air Force, the Honorable Whit Peters, on his first visit to Korea in 1998. I was his cultural tour guide around Seoul and shared my war experience with him. He was particularly interested in my account of the devastation in Seoul through the eyes of a child. Even today, when I walk by a construction site where old buildings are being demolished, it produces a certain dust odor and sometimes has a hypnotic effect, taking me back to that very part of memory lane 55 years ago.

Increasingly, known and unknown North Korean defectors are coming to South Korea via third countries. More and more North and South Korean firms engage in joint commercial ventures.

The New York Philharmonic's concert in Pyongyang in February this year is an unprecedented event. They even played the Star-Spangled Banner! I cannot say it is parallel, but certainly similar to the events and the subsequent fall of the East German Communist government preceded the German Reunification in 1989. I hope Korea will follow in the footsteps of Germany. I believe and I want to believe that the reunification of Korea is a matter of time and will occur peacefully, without any casualties, unlike the events that had occurred more than five and a half decades ago.

My wife and I were able to travel to China twice as U.S. citizen tourists. When we tracked along the north sides of the Yalu and Tumen rivers by the North Korean border, we felt like we were driving the border road just north of the Rio Grande riverbank between Texas and Mexico. We were convinced that someday soon we would be able to flash our passports and drive to North Korea just like we do now to cross the Mexican border.

But just in case events turn otherwise, the men and women of today's 8th Army and 7th Air Force are ever vigilant for the worst-case scenario, and will defend the Freedoms Frontier, take the fight north to reunite the peninsula once and for all!