A group of veterans, their friends and families, gathered at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Canton yesterday to recall the conflict that figured so large in their lives and yet left such a faint impression in the nation's historical memory.
They witnessed the unveiling of 19 stainless steel statues of Korean War-era foot soldiers, trucked from a foundry in Beacon, N.Y. They will form the last element of the Korean War Veterans Memorial nearing completion in Washington. Many hope the national monument will soothe the bitterness of the years of neglect.
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke articulated the thoughts prevalent among the 200 people assembled under a sunless sky around the circular memorial with a map of the Korean Peninsula embedded at its center.
"The Korean War is sometimes called the forgotten war," he said. "It was a war whose soldiers have not received the appreciation and understanding they deserve."
Brig. Gen. Thomas Baker, assistant adjutant general of Maryland's Army National Guard, emphasized the rapidity with which the United States dispatched troops after the North Korean invasion of the south, which triggered the war. It might have been a bit too quickly for Donald Schmincke, a 64-year-old retired electrician who lives near Essex.
Mr. Schmincke was a corporal at the time in the 21st Infantry Regiment of the 24th Infantry Division, stationed in Japan.
"Being we were the closest, they sent us over fast," he said. "It was hell. One regiment against seven divisions of North Koreans. We met them at Osan. We lasted 10 days. They just surrounded us." Those not killed were captured, he recalled.
Mr. Schmincke was captured and sent to a prison camp where his fellow soldiers "just froze to death and starved to death." He was released after the Armistice of July 27, 1953. "I was 37 months and 14 days a prisoner of war," he said.
Hosurl Pak, one of a sprinkling of Koreans in the crowd, was baffled by the United States' attitude toward its involvement in the conflict in his homeland. He is 65 and had been a South Korean Army interpreter attached to the 224th Regiment of the 40th U.S. Infantry Division during the entire war. He immigrated from South Korea to Baltimore in 1970.
"Except for very few Americans who had been there, most Americans had no knowledge of Korea. They didn't know how [our] American friends were sacrificed in Korea," he said. "Look at this crowd. I think it should be larger. Also, I think the Korean community in the U.S. should participate more."
Raymond Williams, 66, a former Ranger with the 555th Airborne Battalion in Korea, took note of the meager turnout but said, "You never need a big crowd if you got good men."
He also had his thoughts about why the Korean War was being too heavily edited from the narrative of the nation's history. "It was because [Harry S.] Truman in the White House was saying, 'Don't call it a war. Call it a police action.' In other words, it was a war that wasn't supposed to happen."
"Kids in school, they don't know anything about the war," complained Raymond Neser, 68, of Baltimore. Mr. Neser had been a member of the 11th Engineers Battalion, based at Fort McHenry. The battalion was one of the early units sent to Korea.
John Snell, 66, who was in Korea from the spring of 1953 to the fall of 1954, said he regretted the absence of the United Nations flag at the ceremonies. "The symbolism of the Korean War was that it was done as a collective United Nations action," he said.
After the color guard presented arms, and the speeches were made, and the benediction read, the veterans returned to the three large flatbed trucks for a look at the 19 steel sculptures. The statues, rough textured and gray, were strapped down for the journey to Washington.
For James K. Martin of the Maryland chapter of the Korean War Veterans Association, who accompanied the statues from New York, it was like living his Korean experience all over again. "They're beautiful," he said. "I look at them and I can see my unit on patrol in 1951."