Recognition at last for Korea's veterans

April 17, 1995|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Writer Kerry diGrazia of The Sun's Washington Bureau contributed to this article.

For William "Bud" Wahlhaupter, the long forgotten war is forgotten no longer.

Mr. Wahlhaupter, commander of the Maryland Korean War Veterans Association, will have affirmation of that this afternoon when three tractor-trailers lumber up to the Korean War Memorial in Canton. They will be carrying 19 larger-than-life stainless-steel statues created to complete the Korean War Veterans Memorial in the nation's capital.

After a brief harborside ceremony and unveiling of three of the statues, the images of American foot soldiers in combat gear will be transported to a 7-acre site on the Mall in Washington, where another welcoming ceremony will be held.

For the former field radio repairman who served in Korea from the end of 1952 through 1953, the memorial was a long time coming. But he shows no bitterness that veterans returning from Korea were never received nor remembered as conquering heroes.

"We never had no parades," Mr. Wahlhaupter recalled. "I came back from Washington [state] with 400 other vets. The train just dropped people off. When I got off at Baltimore there was nobody there. I just took a bus to Fort Meade to get discharged."

The official dedication of the national memorial is set for July 27, the 42nd anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended three years of fighting on the Korean Peninsula, often considered this country's most inconclusive war.

Retired Col. William E. Weber, a member of the Korean War Veterans Memorial Advisory Board, described Korea as "the bloodiest foreign war America ever fought, in terms of the percentage of casualties relative to the number of personnel deployed. In Korea, the killed-in-action average was 1,500 a month. In Vietnam, it was 480 a month."

There were 33,652 battle deaths during the 37 months of combat Korea, according to the Department of Defense; 103,284 were wounded. Maryland lost 527. By contrast, 58,196 died during the 16 years of the Vietnam War.

The five days of ceremonies opening the memorial to the public -- July 26-30 -- seem designed to dispel any memories of neglect or lack of interest in the historic importance of the Korean War. President Clinton will be there, and the four living ex-presidents have been invited.

President Kim Young Sam of South Korea will attend, as well as representatives from all 21 nations that supported the United Nations resolution opposing the North Korean invasion of South Korea.

Organizers expect at least half a million visitors over the five days of services, fireworks, entertainment, films and seminars.

To veterans, the war memorial was years overdue, a fact noted by President George Bush when he broke ground for it on June 14, 1992. "When tyranny threatened, you were quick to answer your country's call," he told veterans at the ceremony. "Sadly, your country wasn't quite as quick to answer your call for recognition of that sacrifice."

Mr. Wahlhaupter and other veterans are aware of the national amnesia toward the Korean War. They think they understand why it exists: There was a war weariness from World War II and an absence of the turmoil and resistance to the draft that characterized the Vietnam era.

And many of the veterans themselves wanted to forget the war.

Mr. Wahlhaupter, who lives in Northeast Baltimore, said he was not at all disappointed that nobody wanted to talk about the war years ago. "All I wanted to do was get home. All I wanted to do was see my wife, and go back to work," he said.

William Zollenhoffer's experience was similar, though his welcome was a little more festive. But then, he had been a prisoner of war. He was captured on Dec. 1, 1950, after four months of combat, and was repatriated a month after the cease-fire was signed. He's 64 now, retired as a dispatcher from Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

"When I came home it was great," Mr. Zollenhoffer of Highlandtown recalled. "It was such a great time for about two months. Then everything came crashing down on me. That's when I realized that though I was home, any kind of noise would shake me up, remind me of Korea.

"One time I was walking up the street and a jackhammer started and I jumped into a ditch and got dirty as a result. An old lady was laughing at me. I'm not sure what I thought what it was. Maybe enemy fire."

Asked why the Korean conflict has been called "The Forgotten War," Mr. Zollenhoffer said: "It was because the men who came home didn't remind people of it. They went back to work. That was the difference; we didn't talk about it much."

"After the second war, they had ticker-tape parades," he added. "This was sort of a silent war, without any parades, or dissension or resistance by people here in the States."

To Colonel Weber, the subdued national reaction to the war and toward those who fought it had deeper causes. "At the time the war was fought this nation perceived no direct threat to the United States, and when the war ended this nation had no concept of a victory," he said.

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