Tag Archives: korean war

veteran’s day war story (part two)

My dad tells me that he was granted leave at one point. He had not heard from my mom since they were separated outside Pusan, when he was forcibly enlisted into the army of the Republic of Korea. So he decided that during his leave he would try to find her, and my sister, and my grandmother.

The only place he could think of to look was on an island off the coast of Korea where refugees were living, in tents. When he arrived, there were masses of people. The lives of everyone had been affected already by the war, and many had uprooted themselves, like my family, and fled. The tents were orderly, but everywhere.

All my dad could do was walk the lines of tents. He didn’t really expect to see my mom or my sister, a baby at the time, or my grandmother. The odds were too great.

And yet, as he walked toward one tent, he saw my mom emerge.

My dad ended that part of the story there. I continue in my mind’s eye, though, and imagine a happy reunion, an embrace laden with relief and joy and tears. I imagine that after a moment, my mother ushers my father into the tent. They sit, silently. What is there to say when your life has become completely unrecognizable? And then something happens to jolt them back into the world. Perhaps my sister cries, not knowing who my father is and needing my mother’s attention. Perhaps it’s a noise from outside, the sound of a nearby refugee neighbor.

Perhaps it’s nothing at all, but just the recognition that it is not possible to sit for too long in any one spot in the midst of a war.

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veteran’s day war story (part one)

One afternoon, a few years ago, I sat with my dad at the McDonald’s in downtown Flushing. It was then that my dad told me the story of our family’s flight south at the outbreak of the Korean War.

After World War II, my family lived close to the border between North and South, in what was technically the Communist North, also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The border, though the site of small armed skirmishes, was relatively porous.

The way my dad tells the story, on June 25th, 1950, North Korean troops stormed into South Korea unexpectedly, and began a five-week-long march down the peninsula, overwhelming the South Korean and U.S. armies.

Hearing of the impending attack from neighbors, my parents buried their belongings, gathered up my older sister (a three-week-old baby at that time) and started traveling south. They also had with them my grandmother – my mother’s mother – and my great grandfather.

The North Korean army pushed forward rapidly, always seemingly one step behind my family which was struggling to make it to Pusan, a safe haven at the southern tip. Along the way, my father had to leave my great grandfather behind, at a house with friends, because my great-grandfather was not physically capable of traveling so quickly and for such long distances. Meanwhile, as it pushed south, the North Korean army was purging the intelligensia. My father, a school teacher who spoke English, feared that if caught he would be killed. So my family continued its race south. My father never saw my great grandfather again.

Just outside Pusan, when my family would have been relatively safe inside what was the last line of defense put up by the American Army and known as the Pusan Perimeter, my father was conscripted. The army of the Republic of Korea swept him up and, since he spoke English, made him a liaison to a U.S. artillery unit.

My mother and grandmother and sister, left to fend for themselves, were forced to a refugee camp on an island off the mainland.

It was early August, 1950. The Korean War would stretch on for yet three more years.

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yankees v. phillies, korean war edition

I called my dad today. He started our conversation, as he always does, by telling me we had a bad connection. When in reality, my dad needs hearing aids but refuses to get them. My dad’s auditory denial drives my brother Sam crazy. Me? I feel like when you’ve lived 80+ years, you’ve earned the right to do pretty much anything you want to do, include force your children to talk very loudly into the phone on occasion.

I call just as Game 4 of the World Series is beginning.

“Yankees Phillies,” my dad says.

He read in the paper, he tells me, that the last time the Yankees and Phillies met in the World Series, the year was 1950. My dad remembers that World Series. Not because he was a Yankees fan, or a Phillies fan, or even a baseball fan.

He remembers that series because he was working as a translator for American G.I.s during the Korean War. There was baseball news in Stars and Stripes and broadcasts of the games on shortwave radio. My dad had heard of the Yankees – and New York City, of course – but had no idea what baseball was or that there was a place called Philadelphia. He could translate words, but he didn’t know the culture.

My dad remembers that one American soldier referenced Nelson Rockefeller, the oil-family scion and soon-to-be governor of New York State. Rockefeller, the G.I. said, had enough money to buy Korea. My dad tells me he didn’t doubt that was true, given that Korea, months into a war that raged up and down the peninsula, was a bombed-out shell of its former self.

North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25th, 1950. The day before, the Phillies, affectionately known as the Whiz Kids, pulled a game behind the Brooklyn Dodgers in the race for the National League Pennant. They would eventually overtake the Dodgers and clinch on the last day of the season.

Throughout the summer, the North Korean army pushed south, all the way to Pusan, which sits at the tip of the peninsula. The U.S. then pushed back. By October 1st, 1950 – three days before the start of the World Series – the North Korean Army was forced back over the 38th parallel (which is today still the dividing line between the two countries).

On Oct. 7, the Yankees completed their four-game sweep of the Whiz Kids.

The next day China entered the war.

For the next three years, the Korean War continued – a stalemate, essentially – with massive casualties on both sides. Afterward, my family immigrated to the U.S., largely because my dad received a sponsorship to study here – the result of his work as a translator and befriending an American soldier.

He never expected to stay, always assumed he’d return to Korea once he finished school.

But here he is, following the Yankees and Phillies in another World Series. This unlikely arc makes my Dad laugh. Eventually, we say good bye. And he goes back to watching the game.

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