Comrades, families remember the fallen

Memorial Day: A veteran of Korea who has written a memoir wants Americans to honor their war dead.

May 30, 2000|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

I wondered what the North Koreans or Chinese on that huge mountain in front of me were doing at that moment. Were they as cold as I? Were they eager to end their aggression? Or, were they planning more attacks or skirmishes?

- From "Korea: The Everlasting Watch," by Paul A. Steppe Jr., retired soldier

Paul A. Steppe Jr. was wondering about those enemy soldiers in the winter of 1951, which meant there were nearly two years of fighting to go, which meant, also, that he would find out day after bloody day that wars are much easier to start than they are to end.

Steppe is 68 now, gray-haired and a bit slower of step than he was while pacing as a corporal, on the lookout for North Koreans and the first signs of frostbite because he didn't want to lose his life to the enemy or his feet to the cold. He didn't need to write his book - an unpublished sheaf of paper, really - to remember those days. But he wanted to be sure others wouldn't forget what soldiers in the Korean War faced.

Yesterday, he and about 500 other people gathered at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens for Memorial Day to remember that war and all the others that have claimed American lives, to remember William R. Jecelin and Donn F. Porter and so many other fallen soldiers, to remember them, Steppe will tell you, because that is the right thing to do.

That is why he wrote his book. It's not enough to set aside a day a year to remember, so he stayed up nights in March, April and most of May, taking what he had planned as a brief history lesson of sorts for his children and expanding it to 119 pages of memories of the war that began 50 years ago.

"It was time to write it down, but it wasn't easy," he said after yesterday's ceremonies. "It was three months of agony - of trying to research my soul."

Steppe and most of the other veterans on hand fought when war was more personal, before "smart bombs" and laser-guided missiles, at a time of rifles, hand grenades and bayonets.

Sgt. William Jecelin was killed in Korea by a grenade, after he threw himself on it to save the lives of his men. Sgt. Donn F. Porter was killed in Korea, too, by an artillery blast after he jumped from his position with bayonet fixed and killed six enemy soldiers in close combat.

They received the country's highest decoration, the Medal of Honor, years ago, and yesterday they were honored again with kind words from generals and politicians and with plaques for those who loved them.

"It was an honor for me to be here for something like this," said Jecelin's nephew, Thomas Jecelin, 61, of Baltimore. "But it's really in his honor."

The honors for the soldiers began with the presentation of the colors. The 229th Maryland Army National Guard Band played "The Star-Spangled Banner," and people who remember the wars rose from their folding chairs and didn't mumble but sang the words out.

People pledged allegiance to the flag and then sang of soaring eagles and shining seas, the tides at Inchon, and truth marching on. Generals gave speeches and used words such as patriotism and valor, and spoke of spilled blood, ultimate sacrifices, young men in the mud and the last full measure.

Then a bugler played "Taps," and people like Rosa Shorter cried.

She's 81, and in 1946, she met an American soldier, Nessie Preston Shorter, who had come to her home in Italy and fell in love with her and married her and brought her home and had a son with her. The son's name was John Joseph Shorter, and in 1968 he was killed in Vietnam when his tank hit a land mine. He was 21.

"I come here twice a month about," Rosa Shorter said, standing next to the headstone of her son and her husband, who died in 1977. On this visit to the cemetery she carried the extra emotion of mourning her grandson, killed three months ago in a car accident and buried here.

"It's nice to come here and remember," she said. "But hard, too."

Some of the older people spoke with hope about the younger people who were there, how many of them seem able not to just learn about war but to appreciate the sacrifices, how - say what you will about kids - a lot of them just get it.

Devin Randall is only age 9, but he was at the ceremony yesterday along with a dozen or so other kids from his group, the Baltimore Young Marines, who were dressed in fatigues and little black boots and who passed out flowers and buttons to visitors and stood at attention when they were supposed to.

They spent Saturday in the rain, planting about 600 American flags on the graves of veterans. "It's a good purpose," he said.

This little Devin knows that his father, Kanzler Randall III, is an Army veteran, and he says maybe he will be too someday, he just doesn't know. He doesn't know much about the Korean War other than what he's seen in the movies.

"There were people on boats, and some on the ground, and they got bombs dropped on them," he explained, "and it was bad."

Steppe, the corporal with the memories and the history lesson written down wants kids like Devin to know that war is not a video game, not an easy event to live through, the proof being those 600 little flags the Young Marines placed, the more than 54,000 American soldiers killed in the Korean War, 527 from Maryland.

He could maybe try to have his book published somewhere other than a copying service someday, probably not. In the meantime, friends and a schoolteacher who encouraged him to write get copies of his pages and read them. Some who read learn. His fellow veterans who read remember.

"I put my socks back on and began to peel the ice from my mustache, which had been exposed more than my beard. I checked my nose for ice and found myself breathing properly then crawled into my sleeping bag and simultaneously pulled the parka over the bag with the hood almost covering my face. Sleep came quickly as usual. There were no dreams, not good ones or bad ones, just welcomed sleep."

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