Korea Vets Let Down --Again


July 28, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- In late July, U.S. veterans of a certain vintage are likely to start remembering names like Pusan, Inchon and Wonsan. Millions of young Americans have never heard of those places, which is understandable. What grates is that so many who are old enough to remember them don't.

The other day in Phoenix, men who fought in Korea with the 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division got together to reminisce. That was the fun part. When they started looking at the present and future, they were not as happy, because they believe they and their comrades are still getting the runaround.

Almost five years ago, Congress approved construction of a Korean War Memorial here in Washington, to commemorate the 54,000 Americans who died and the hundreds of thousands who served in the conflict that ended July 27, 1953. It was a long overdue gesture, and the campaign to win congressional approval and raise funds was an emotional roller coaster for those involved.

The nation had built the Vietnam memorial, and, a decade after that war was over, the country finally recognized the sacrifices of those who died there. But now, nearly 40 years after the truce that ended the Korean war, the men who fought and died there still were ignored.

True, there are more Vietnam veterans, because Americans fought there almost ten years, in Korea only three. But the number of dead was nearly even, which testifies to the intensity of the fighting in Korea.

Both wars were fought for essentially the same reason, to prevent Communist takeover of a divided nation on the fringe of the great-power struggle. The Korean effort succeeded. But just as the war of opinion over Vietnam was the stylish cause of the Sixties, finally making up with the men who fought there was the thing to do in the Eighties. The Korean war has never been in style, in the Fifties or any other decade.

When Congress authorized the memorial, it seemed that at last the forgotten war would be remembered.

After a rocky start, fund-raising has passed $12 million, thanks to sale of a commemorative coin. A design competition was held, and a scene with heroic-size statues of 38 infantrymen was chosen. That version ran the gamut of commissions that review every proposed memorial in the capital and got tentative support. Then, this summer, the Fine Arts Commission withdrew its approval.

The project seemed in limbo during the 23rd Infantry reunion earlier this month. One who was there said, "A number of them think all this is just a conspiracy to submerge the Korean War Memorial. It's their gut reaction. They've seen it go on and on, and every time it seems something good should happen, something bad happens. A lot of the fellows now say they don't care -- don't expect anything and you won't be disappointed. A lot are unhappy and believe the money is just being thrown away."

All 84 of them signed a petition to President Bush, "to seek redress on an issue which gives great pain to our hearts, our minds and our souls. . . .

"We fought on the Naktong, at Kunu-ri, at Chipyong-ni, the Punchbowl, Bloody Ridge, Heartbreak Ridge, Old Baldy, Porkchop Hill, T-Bone, Arrowhead and thousand nameless ridges in a country unknown to us. We were young men. . . . We saw life slip away from other young men, and we have not forgotten. . . . We cannot forget.

"We ask simply that a just and fitting Korean War Veterans Memorial be built . . . with no more delay, or excuse."

Last Thursday, the review commission met in executive session to consider the revised design. Among those closely involved, hopes were high, but in vain.

The commission refused to accept the revision. Now, apparently, the runner-up in the design competition will be considered. If it is rejected, the American Battle Monuments Commission is expected to solicit designs from a professional artist or architect. It has asked for a two-year extension of the five-year authority which assumed construction surely would be under way by now.

Meanwhile, another Korean war anniversary passed yesterday. Though the veterans of Heartbreak and Porkchop have learned never to expect much, they still were disappointed.

Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun. His column appears on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.

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