WASHINGTON -- America ensured yesterday that its forgotten war will always be remembered.
Forty-two years after the armistice was signed to end the Korean War, a new memorial to the American servicemen who fought in that conflict was dedicated on the Washington Mall. It is a monument that most Korean War veterans believe was long overdue.
"We never cried; we never grumped, we just waited," said Bill Audet, 63, a gaunt, retired postal worker from Maine who stormed ashore at Inchon harbor as a young Marine in September 1950.
The waiting ended yesterday in ceremonies that attracted tens of thousands of Korean War veterans who gathered in Washington to participate in a week-long commemoration of their ordeal.
At the Washington Mall yesterday, they heard President Clinton admonish that too many Americans had "lost sight of the importance of Korea," which he said was this country's first blow against the tyranny of communism.
"[N]ow we know, with the benefit of history, that those of you who served and the families who stood behind you laid the foundations for one of the greatest triumphs in the history of human freedom," he said.
"By sending a clear message that America had not defeated fascism to see communism prevail, you put the free world on the road to victory in the Cold War. That is your enduring contribution, and all free people everywhere should recognize it today."
The president also reminded the audience that Korea was "the first mission of the United Nations to fight to preserve peace," a reference, perhaps, to his embattled Bosnian policies and support for the current U.N. mission in the former Yugoslavia.
Preceding Mr. Clinton to the podium was South Korean President Kim Young Sam, who praised American forces for coming to his country's aid after North Korean forces poured across the border on June 25, 1950.
"The sacrifices of the Korean War veterans to the defense of freedom and peace were not in vain," he told the crowd, which included representatives of the other 20 countries that came to South Korea's defense as part of the U.N. force.
Earlier in the day, President Clinton attended a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. In the evening, there were to be fireworks. Today, there was to be a muster of active duty troops as well as veterans at the Washington Monument and tomorrow a parade down Constitution Avenue.
The crowd for the dedication ceremony was estimated at 50,000, about half as many as organizers of the event had predicted. Yesterday's temperature, which reached the mid-90s, may have convinced many to stay away. The U.S. Park Service said medics treated more than 100 people for heat-related illness.
Immediately after the ceremony, thousands of veterans and their families lined up to get their first close-up view of the memorial, the unveiling of which was the highlight of this week's festivities.
The memorial, which faces the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, depicts 19 American servicemen, in ponchos and carrying rifles, warily making their way through juniper shrubs toward an American flag. Cast in stainless steel and slightly larger than life, the realistic figures seem battle weary but keenly alert to sudden danger.
Nearby is a "memorial wall" reminiscent of the Vietnam Memorial. However, instead of listing the names of the dead, the 164-foot
black granite wall shows the faces of nurses, mechanics, truck drivers and clerks -- the support troops in Korea. Their faces were taken from actual photographs and then burnished into the wall.
On the eastern end of the wall is the memorial's terse inscription: "FREEDOM IS NOT FREE."
Yesterday's ceremony concluded nearly a decade-long battle of Korean War veterans to create a national monument to their efforts. Many of them wore T-shirts and baseball caps that said, "The Forgotten War," a lamentation that their service to their country was overlooked after the glory of World War II.
"In the beginning when we came home from Korea, we didn't get no welcomes, no parades, no nothing," said Harold Lanehart of Camp Springs, who served in the 14th Infantry regiment, the so-called "Golden Dragons."
"We got off the boats and just went to work."
If Americans did not dwell much on Korea after the war, it was probably because the conflict did not end conclusively or gloriously for the United States the way World War II had. The Americans pushed the North Koreans out of South Korea, but the Chinese also pushed the Americans out of North Korea. Instead of a surrender, America had to accept an armistice, this after nearly 54,000 Americans had lost their lives on the battlefield.
(By comparison, about 58,000 died in Vietnam, a much longer conflict.)
By the end of the war in 1953, Americans were tired of war and seemed little interested in honoring Korean veterans.
But the veterans never gave up their hopes that they would one day receive recognition. They began organizing and lobbying a decade ago, finally winning congressional approval in 1986 of a site on the mall.
But the struggle didn't end there. Korean War veterans had to contribute most of the costs of the $18 million memorial. They also had to endure squabbles and a lawsuit over the design of the monument.
Sitting on the grass in the mid-day heat, Milt Vonn Mann, 70, of Nashville let his memories drift back to those frightening days when mortars burst around him, injuring him and his comrades, some of whom he carried to safety.
As the one-time high school football coach spoke about his homecoming -- empty of ceremonies and celebration -- his eyes welled up. Maybe with yesterday's dedication, he said, that pain would ease.
"It's like you can finally come home," he said.