The politicians called it a “police action,” but try telling that to the 1.5 million Americans who fought in Korea, the 103,000 wounded there, relatives of the 36,914 who died there.
Now, after four decades of neglect, veterans of the Korean War are finally getting their own national memorial in Washington. Veterans say that makes this Memorial Day worth remembering.
“We are finally, finally being recognized,” said Emmett Benjamin, 69, of Miami, a national director of the Korean War Veterans Association. “Not just us, but all the guys and gals who didn’t come home.”
A combat veteran of what many call “The Forgotten War,” Benjamin will be in Washington on July 27 when the elaborate memorial is dedicated. At least 250,000 Korean War vets and their relatives plan to attend the ceremony.
“You bet I’ll be there,” said Joseph Firriolo, 64, a medic during the war and now president of the Dania, Fla., chapter of the veterans association. “For the first time, people of this country are realizing there was a place called Korea and so many of our boys went there.
“They called it a police action, but that was wrong. It was a war. Believe me, it was a war.”
That it was. Sent to South Korea after it was attacked in 1950 by North Korea, U.S. soldiers endured some of the most savage combat ever experienced.
By the macabre ratio of such things, the Korean War was more costly than the Vietnam War.
According to the Pentagon, 36,914 Americans died in the Korean theater between the outbreak of hostilities on June 25, 1950, and an armistice signed July 27, 1953.
The Vietnam War claimed 58,000 lives but persisted for more than 10 years.
In 1982, Vietnam veterans dedicated the memorial they so richly deserved. Veterans of both world wars have a variety of monuments in Washington.
But the Korean-era veterans around the nation were denied a parallel honor.
For many decades, the absence of a national memorial angered them. They answered the call. They fought valiantly and well. They did their job. But their efforts and sacrifice were not recognized.
It didn’t seem fair.
The Korean War veterans lobbied and agitated, negotiated and maneuvered. Finally, in 1986, they won congressional authorization to build a memorial in the nation’s capital.
Now, the $17 million project - entirely funded by private and corporate donations - is almost complete.
Located near the Lincoln Memorial, across the Reflecting Pool from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean Veterans Memorial features a triangular field on which 19 soldiers appear to be marching.
One side of the field is marked by a granite wall. Hundreds of faces are etched on that wall like shadows. Taken from military archives, they are the faces of men and women who served in Korea.
At the point of the triangle is found a small reflecting pond and a message engraved in stone: “Freedom Is Not Free.”
For many veterans, this memorial reflects 40 years of effort. For many veterans, this Memorial Day weekend is special.
“I’m going to raise the flag and I’ll salute it and I’ll have a tear in my eye,” said Benjamin. “I’ll be thinking of a lot of good men and women who never came back and will never see the memorial we finally built for them.”