Common soldiers, thankless for four decades, found a final triumph Thursday at the dedication of the Korean War Veterans Memorial.
The ceremony, like the memorial, was a tribute to those who stoically did their duty in what has become known as “the forgotten war.”
After some pomp and a round of speeches, the new memorial was opened for the first time to the public, and an estimated crowd of 50,000, many in tears, poured in for a close look.
There to greet them are 19 statues of common soldiers who peer over their shoulders with a wary look. You immediately feel like one of their comrades. The statues, cast in gray stainless steel on a scale slightly larger than life, appear to be moving along broken terrain, and the visitor shares a sense of fear and suspense, as though enemy fire may erupt any time.
Behind them is a dark wall, rising like a gray mist, etched with the faces of nurses, cooks, chaplains and support troops. Flying above them all is the American flag.
Walking with a slow, somber cadence among these soldiers, President Clinton and South Korean President Kim Yung-sam provided the official pronouncements at the steamy and emotional ceremony. But the crowd of veterans and their families, linking hands and raising up their arms, provided the final blessing by declaring, in unison: “This memorial is dedicated.”
“I’ve never seen anything so magnificent in my entire life,” said Emmett Benjamin, a veteran from Miami, his eyes rimmed with red. “We have waited so long, so very long.”
Overshadowed by veterans older and younger, the Korean War soldiers have rarely received much recognition.
“The Korean War came five years after World War II. Everybody wanted to forget about veterans, war, uniforms, even the flag,” Benjamin said. “When we went and did our job, which I think was magnificent, they forgot about us. Guys came back with nobody at the station to meet them. We were hurt. We were very hurt.”
Most seemed satisfied with the belated results. They liked the common touch.
“The foot soldiers they have - that’s a great memorial, a fighting squadron like that,” said Marcel Kirwan, 65, of Florida. “Instead of putting people of rank ahead of anybody else, it’s for the fighting man.
“I think it’s been too long coming,” Kirwan said. “Not just for myself, but for a lot of guys who deserved it.”
The 19 statues stand on a triangular field of juniper shrubs a short walk southeast from the brooding Lincoln Memorial. The soldiers appear headed for the flag, framed by the 164-foot-wide wall of faces. The images spring from photographs of the Korean War, giving viewers a gritty yet ghostly sense of being there.
At the end of the wall is inscribed, “FREEDOM IS NOT FREE.”
The effect neither glorifies war nor raises a protest against it.
Whereas the Vietnam Veterans Memorial across Independence Mall conveys a tragic loss of life, a profound sacrifice, the Korean War memorial represents a sense of duty and simple patriotism found among common soldiers. The $18-million memorial was designed by Cooper-Lecky Architects of Washington after architects from Pennsylvania State University dropped their plans when realizing they would be altered by the Korean War Veterans Memorial Advisory Board.
Not everyone is happy with the final results.
To Richard Toms, 62, the soldiers appear to be in retreat - a sore subject for those who were once routed by Chinese forces.
“But I’m glad, because we’re getting some recognition,” Toms said, his voice choked as he recalled his fallen comrades. “Whether I like it or not, it’s still a memorial to us.”
Clinton picked up the thankless common-soldier theme during his address to the veterans, and he said history has shown they won an important victory by preserving the independence of South Korea.
“By sending a clear message that America had not defeated fascism only to see communism prevail, you put the free world on the road to victory in the Cold War,” Clinton said. “That is your enduring contribution, and all free people everywhere in the world should recognize it today.”