The group calls itself the Chosin Few, after the Battle of Chosin in 1950. The 1st Marine Division, several army units and their British and South Korean allies were surrounded by a Chinese force that outnumbered them. 8 to 1. The US-led force forced its way out of the encirclement.
Behind the reunion festivities, the veterans struggled to hide a muted frustration, born of the perception that their military service is more valued abroad than at home by their fellow Americans. For these men, the Korean War of 1950-1953 remains America’s “forgotten war”.
Raymond Miller, 93, said he started talking about the war only two decades ago when he found US history textbooks barely mentioned the conflict. Tears flowed as he recalled how South Korean citizens thanked him when he returned to Korea in 2007 for the first time since the war.
“They have a special place in my heart,” he said.
At 1 p.m., Miller and his comrades toured the newly expanded Korean War Memorial in DC. There they met two South Korean women, who asked the men who they were. When they learned they were Americans who had fought in Korea, they bowed and held their hands, as if to make sure their heroes were real.
Before a banquet, retired Navy Colonel Warren Wiedhahn addressed the assembled veterans, saying that when he first returned to Korea after the war in the early 1970s, he saw a sign that read ” We will never forget”. He had no idea what that meant. He later discovered that South Koreans were trying to thank American and foreign veterans.
South Korea and the United States start military exercises likely to draw the North’s ire
Berger, who spoke to veterans after Wiedhahn, said “you are never forgotten.” Of the four photos hanging in his office, he said, three depict Marines fighting in Korea.
Before the Marines toast and dance the night away, memories pop up over the conversations.
Juan Balleza, a 90-year-old Navy infantryman, choked when asked about the Battle of Chosin. A Catholic, Balleza carried a Bible in his left breast pocket and prayed every night. “I asked God to forgive me for the Chinese I had killed that day, and for those I would kill the next day, knowing that they all had mothers at home who wanted them back” , said the Mexican-American. “Just like my mom.”
John Y. Lee is a 93-year-old Korean-American who was at the time a first lieutenant in the South Korean military and was attached to the headquarters of the US 1st Marine Division as an intelligence officer . He said he still sees Chinese soldiers dying in his nightmares, looking at him, as if asking him to save them.
Wiedhahn said he remembered the body of a girl who appeared to be around 3 years old from the Battle of Chosin. She was lying in the ice and snow by the side of the road, he said.
“I will never forget her. We prayed for her soul as we struggled to get through this,” he said. “I always pray for her.”
Nancy Weigle, whose father, Gerald F. Weigle, had served as a corpsman with the Marines, said her father would be obsessed with his children’s shoes and winter clothes – possibly because he has seen so many of his Marines suffer from frostbite and freeze to death in the weather below 20 of the mountains of North Korea. He died in 2018.
The Korean War appears to be best known in China, America’s main adversary during the Korean War, said Jiyul Kim, a retired colonel who teaches history at Oberlin College in Ohio.
In Chinese schools, children learn about the Korean War with particular emphasis on classes in Bunker Hill or Gettysburg in America, Kim said. In the United States, the war is not necessarily forgotten, he says, as much as it is largely ignored.
The importance of the war on race relations within the armed forces has also been ignored, according to historians. Although President Harry S. Truman ordered the U.S. Army to disintegrate in 1948, many units remained all-white or all-black in 1950. It was only as the war progressed that the US military has truly embarked on integration, they say.
“The Korean War begins with a segregated army. Blacks are in separate units with white officers,” said University of Kansas military history professor Adrian R. Lewis. Some local Koreans were recruited and integrated into all-white units before African Americans because the army in the first weeks of the war was dangerously understaffed, Lewis said.
Joe H. Ager, a 93-year-old Army soldier who fought at Chosin, was one of the few black veterans at the meeting. He was a member of an all-black infantry company when he landed in Korea in October 1950. His eyes grew red with emotion as he talked about the war.
“We also did our part,” he said.