By Zachariah Bryan
Northwest Asian Weekly
Just five years after World War II and five years before the Vietnam War, the “Forgotten War” happened.
Many Americans tend to forget the United States’ role in the Korean War, which took about 36,500 American lives and about 1.2 million lives overall in the years between 1950 and 1953. In an attempt to remember and give significance to those soldiers’ sacrifice and bravery, the Consul General of the Republic of Korea Song Young-wan honored 12 Korean War veterans the Ambassador of Peace medal last Saturday.
The medal is authorized by the Korean Minister of Patriots and Veteran Affairs and is awarded to Korean War veterans as a way of saying thank you for what they did. Both veterans and families of those who died in the war are eligible for the award.
“Things like this do help serve the purpose of reminding us what this was all about,” said Allen Nakamoto, commander of the Nisei Veteran Committee, who helped organize the event.
Nakamoto said that more often than not, WWII and Vietnam veterans are honored while Korean War veterans get the short end of the stick. This year being the 60th Anniversary of the war — both sides came to an armistice on July 27, 1953 — Nakamoto said it was a good year to do something.
Throughout the program, speakers pointed to the success of South Korea as evidence that the help veterans provided was worthwhile. In the time since the war, South Korea has risen as an economic power engine: It is now a G20 country, has the 12th largest purchasing power parity and is the seventh largest trading partner with the U.S.
For many of the veterans lined up to receive the award, the war was all but forgotten. Some had friends who died in battle. Others were tucked safely far behind the frontlines. Everyone remembered the cold, which seemed more reminiscent of an Alaskan winter than a tropical area, dropping well below zero and causing severe frostbite.
State Senator Paul Shinn shared his own story of the Korean War. Born in 1935, his mother died when he was four and his father abandoned him, leaving him to beg for food and money on the streets.
“I had no place to go, no food to eat,” he said.
One day, during the Korean War and when he was a teenager, an American soldier saw him crying for his mother. The soldier said to Shinn, “Why are you crying? I have other children at home. When they cry, I want to know why.”
The soldier adopted Shinn and they came back to America, which started a long educational and political career. He went on to get a PhD in history from the University of Washington, earned seven honorary doctorates, became a college educator for 31 years (26 of which were at Shoreline Community College) and then became a Washington State Senator.
“My ultimate desire is someday that North and South Korea can be united, so there can be freedom for all,” Shinn said.
Washington State Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos spoke at the event and said her husband served in the war. Like many of the honorees, she said he never talked about it, until one day when she asked him what the war was like.
“The surprising thing to me is he said he remembered the orphans,” she said. “He remembered the children, these innocent victims of the war, and then he showed me a photograph of these children. He never forgot.”
Some of those honored felt they shouldn’t even be up there, such as Alfred Nibs Sakamoto.
“The guy that should be up there is my friend [who couldn’t make it]. He was a combat medic and he was up there in the front lines, and he was fighting the war. I was just at the airport doing an eight-hour job,” said Sakamoto, who worked in photo processing simply because he had written down that he had an interest in photography. In a note he wrote for the event’s program, he said, “Turned out to be a gravy job: eight hour days, slept on a warm bed, had five days R&R to Japan every six weeks.”
Tom Fujii, who was part of the Infantry Division, was 20 years old when he came to the Korean War. He was assigned to a unit in the Kumwha Valley in central Korea, where he frequently heard the sound of guns going off and artillery shells flying overhead, day and night.
Fujii said he and the others who received the awards just felt fortunate that they lived to tell the tale.
He said of the war, “There was a lot of brave people, brave soldiers. The ones I admire the most were the ones who were wounded and were able to come back and rehabilitate and have good lives, good families. And the ones I agonize the most over are the ones that aren’t alive.” (end)
Zachariah Bryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.