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70 Years After Korea: Tales of the Forgotten War

Those whose lives were marked by the conflict carry its memory


spinner image sal scarlato
Sal Scarlato, 90. Private, U.S. Marines, served in Korea from April 11, 1952, to early April 1953. He is a retired electromechanical design draftsman.
Justin Kaneps

Falling between World War II and Vietnam, the Korean War, which ended in an armistice 70 years ago, has sometimes seemed to have a less vivid place in America’s memory. But for those who fought in harrowing combat under brutal conditions there, the memories remain indelible, as they do for those who lost loved ones. And for those of Korean ancestry, the war marked the modern birth of a free and prosperous homeland. Here are some stories from that war.

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Veteran discovers love amidst the hell of war

Salvatore “Sal” Scarlato, 90, Hauppauge, New York

  • Private, U.S. Marines, served in Korea from April 11, 1952, to early April 1953
  • A retired electromechanical design draftsman

My story is about hell and hatred, but it is also a story about love.

Now you’ve got to understand something. An 18-year old who goes into the military doesn’t have a clue what he’s getting into. He doesn’t have a clue about war. He doesn’t have a clue about what a bullet could do to a human body. When I first went to Korea, I said to my superiors: “Why are we going to Korea? Where the hell is Korea? Nobody knows anything about Korea.”

I was assigned to Baker Company, and we were headed to the MLR — the main line of resistance. We only got three-quarters of the way when we were hit with light fire and mortars. The Chinese liked to attack when it was getting dark. They would blow a horn, a bugle and a whistle, and then attack. We jumped out of our truck. The sergeant kept yelling, “Head for the rice paddy!” I started praying. I prayed to every saint, in every religion I could think of. Over the next many months, there were many battles. There were monsoons, rain so heavy you couldn’t see in front of you. I carried a Browning automatic rifle. It weighed about 20 pounds, and the ammo belt weighed about 13 pounds. I carried a .45 and two canteens of water because it got so hot. I carried all that up mountains, time and again.

One day, we were under heavy fire from the Chinese for 24 hours straight. The guy next to me got hit in the stomach. I had just met him, and he fell on top of me. I put my hand on his belly to apply pressure, but his whole insides were blown out. This was the first, but not the last, time a fellow Marine died in my arms.

In July of 1952, I was wounded in the leg, neck and hand by a grenade. They flew me on a helicopter to a hospital ship, and I lived in a bucket of ice for two weeks because my right leg was so swollen. I thought I had a million-dollar wound, because I thought I was going home. But they sent me back to my unit. Back into the war.

One day, we were patrolling, and we came into this area. We found civilians — South Koreans — who had been executed. There were three little children alive, a boy and two girls. The little boy — I took him to an orphanage, but he died when he got there. When I got back to my bunker, I felt so much hate. It tore me apart. I was sitting there crying, and the guys were saying, “Calm down, calm down.” A corpsman tried to give me something, a pill, but I refused it.

And then, I saw this object. A very bright object. It spoke to me, and it said, “Now you know why you are in Korea. It is to save these people.” And that’s all it said.

Ever since, I have loved the Korean people. I felt sorry for them. Why should these civilians suffer? A soldier has to fight. These people were not soldiers. They were just thrown to the wolves. In those days, the term PTSD did not exist. They called it combat fatigue or battle fatigue. Back in the States, I spent six months in a naval hospital, from a combination of my wounds and PTSD. Then I came home.

I have been back to South Korea nine times. South Korea is the only country we ever fought for that still respects and honors us today. I have got South Koreans that are my brothers. That is why my story of hatred and hell has become a story of love.

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Walter Lee Dowdy Jr., 93; Sun City Center, Florida; Corporal, U.S. Army, served in Korea from July 2 to July 26, 1950. He is a retired director at Kalamazoo Valley Community College in Michigan.
JEFFERY SALTER

American casualty paves a path of resilience 

Walter Lee Dowdy Jr., 93, of Sun City Center, Florida

  • Corporal, U.S. Army, served in Korea from July 2 to July 26, 1950
  • A retired director at Kalamazoo Valley Community College in Michigan

I grew up in Benton Harbor, Michigan. My parents had nine kids, and we all finished high school. I graduated in 1948. Me and two buddies were thinking about becoming doctors. We could not afford college without the military, so we enlisted in the Army. My two friends enlisted before me, because I was a little shy, a little scared. My daddy was in World War I. He didn’t talk about it much. My parents cried when I told them that I enlisted.

I went to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. I was cooking for the officers, still waiting for my orders for officer training school. Before I knew it, I received orders and shipped off to Camp Gifu, Japan. I was from a little town in Michigan; I had never been on a ship before or in a foreign country. My unit was segregated. We had all Black troops and white officers. Harry Truman had desegregated the military in 1948. This was 1950, and our unit was all Black troops. I didn’t know anything about it. To me, it was just status quo.

The Korean War started on June 25, and we were put on alert. I landed in Korea on July 2, and I was 19 years old. They issued us live ammunition and combat gear. When we got in combat, we had all Black troops and Black officers. The first sergeant — he was later killed in Korea — he told me, “We don’t need cooks in Korea. We need soldiers. So we’re going to give you a choice: a machine gun or a radio.” I took a radio, as a forward observer.

On July 26, 1950, I went out on patrol. My commander told me to string wire from our post to a mortar position. I was digging in the ground. I looked down a hill and saw guys digging foxholes. And then the bombs started falling. I stayed down until I heard no more bombing. I started to go down the hill and wham! Something hit me, and I felt wet stuff running down my face. I called to my friend. I said, “I been hit.” And that’s all I remember. I was one of the first American casualties of the Korean War.

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When I woke, I was in a Tokyo hospital, both eyes bandaged. Gen. MacArthur visited. I couldn’t see him, but he shook my hand and said, “Soldier, you did a good job.” I was so excited, and I didn’t wash my hand for a long time.

I ended up in Brooks hospital in Texas, where I spent 11 months. I was in bad shape. There was shrapnel in my left eye, damage to my right eye, and shrapnel lodged in my brain. I lost my sense of smell and have never regained it. For several months, I had bad headaches. I developed aneurysms. I had surgeries, and finally some things worked, so I could see out of my right eye.

I ended up going to Western Michigan University, and I had a good career, with many different professions. I was ordained into the ministry in 2009. I have been married to a lovely lady for 71 years, and we have five children. We’ve got grandchildren and great-grandchildren. But my injuries kept catching up to me.

On March 4 of this year, I awoke and I couldn’t see. So now I am blind. But my wife and I are still doing great.

‘I Owe So Much to These Heroes’

A South Korea-born American on her life’s work, honoring Korean War veterans and their families.

I was an IT project manager in the corporate world for 20 years, here in America. After soul-searching and prayer, I decided to do something about what I was most grateful for. I am most grateful for being alive and free. 

My parents were teenagers in Korea during the war, and we immigrated to Southern California in 1975. I grew up like most immigrant families — busy studying, my parents working. I had a successful career in the corporate world, living the American dream. I realized I would not be alive and free today if it were not for the American soldiers who came to Korea to save this small country before I was born. This is true of all Koreans who live in freedom. Today, South Korea is a prosperous country, with the 10th largest economy in the world. It is truly a miracle. All Koreans living in freedom owe that freedom to these American heroes and their families. 

Today, I no longer work in the corporate world. I have dedicated my life to finding these heroes and making their stories known. I have interviewed over 100 Korean War veterans, and about 50 to 60 families whose loved ones were killed in the war. I help to tell their stories on social media, on my YouTube channel, at speaking engagements. That is the best way I can honor these heroes. They call the Korean War the Forgotten War, but we cannot let their stories be forgotten. Millions of people are living in freedom today, because of their service and sacrifice.

— Susan Kee

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Tammi Shreeve, 50, Ogden, Utah; Homemaker, surviving niece of Felix Yanez, a Korean War fallen hero who was missing in action for more than 70 years.
Justin Kaneps

Niece tracks down Uncle’s remains in Korea decades later

Tammi Shreeve, 50, Ogden, Utah

  • Homemaker, surviving niece of Felix Yanez, a Korean War fallen hero who was missing in action for more than 70 years

When I was growing up, my mother would often talk about him. She would say, “I had a brother who died in the Korean War.” His name was Felix Yanez, and his remains were never found. She’d tell these stories, and when I was young, I didn’t have any interest. My mom wanted to go to Hawaii because she heard that his name was on the wall at the Punchbowl [the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, a burial ground for American service members]. So, in 1999, I took her, and we found his name.

Eleven years ago, my mother received an invitation from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency to one of their seminars. They have these meetings in different cities every year, and they are free. You can go and they’ll tell you what they’re doing to try to locate your family member’s remains. I took my mother, and that is when it got inside me. This was not just a story. This was a human being who was my blood. [There are still more than 7,000 Americans who served in Korea who never returned and whose remains have never been recovered.] I’m scared to death of public speaking. But in these meetings, I get up in front of 500 or 600 people and I say his name: Felix Yanez. One day, after speaking at a meeting, two people came up to me afterward. They said, “We knew him.” The more I talked about him, the more I learned about him.

My uncle came from Douglas, Arizona. When he was young, he played guitar and sang mariachi music. He was the oldest of six children, and my mom remembers that he was a protector, that he took care of her. A few years after World War II, he and some friends dared each other to join the Army. They weren’t old enough and lied about their ages. He got sent to Japan, and we believe he had a girlfriend there. After he went missing, my grandmother received a letter in Japanese with a picture of a woman. My grandmother had no idea how to get it translated, and it has since been lost. Maybe my uncle married? Could he have even had a child?

On July 3, 1950, he was sent to Korea. On July 16, he was involved in a battle near the Kum River. He went missing just days past his 19th birthday. His family was notified on July 25 that he had been killed. Still, the family struggled. My grandmother kept asking for his remains. For years, the family had no way of knowing — could he still be alive? Could he be in a prison somewhere?

I’d given the military DNA samples several years ago. In February 2022, they contacted me asking for more DNA. Me, my mom and two other family members supplied some. Then, on July 13, 2022, the military phoned me and told me that they had gotten a positive ID. They had found my uncle.

This is the story I was told: In August of 1950, some farmers in Korea had found remains and had buried them. In March of 1951, American soldiers came through, and these farmers had led them to the graves. The remains were disinterred. Ultimately, my uncle was designated Unidentified Soldier 789, and he was buried at the Punchbowl cemetery in Hawaii. So, amazingly, when my mother and I went there to find his name in 1999, he was already there.

On Sept. 3, 2022, we buried my uncle in Tucson, Arizona. The funeral had full military honors. Both of my uncle’s surviving siblings were there — my mom and her sister, Connie. Soon after, I got to go to Korea. I would stare out the window and wonder if my uncle knew that this was the last place he would be alive. Now South Korea is a beautiful country, because of their sacrifices.

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George Sousa, 93, a Korean War veteran who served in the 2nd infantry Division, 23rd Regiment, F Company, from 1951-52, poses for a portrait at his home. Mr. Sousa was wounded at Heart Break Ridge on Sept 13, 1951.
Philip Cheung

Memories of bloody battles, Christmas, sacrifice

George Sousa, 92, Del Mar, California

  • Corporal, U.S. Army, served in Korea from April 1951 to March 1952
  • Now a retired tuna fisherman
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spinner image historical photo from nineteen fifty one korean war showing members of a united nations infantry patrol walking on a deserted street outside of seoul
Members of a United Nations infantry patrol move through a deserted street on the outskirts of Seoul, South Korea, May 6, 1951.
UPI/Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

The Korean War: Key Facts and Figures

June 25, 1950 — The war starts with a surprise attack by the North Korean army.

Oct. 19, 1950 — Massed Chinese troops cross the North Korea border and attack American, U.N. and South Korean forces.

July 27, 1953 — An armistice ends hostilities at the 38th parallel, with North and South Korea at prewar borders.

American casualties: 54,236 killed and missing; 103,284 wounded

South Korea: 217,000 military deaths

North Korea: 406,000 military deaths

China: 600,000 military deaths  

Total number of U.S. military who served in the combat theater: 1,789,000

First war in which the U.S. military fought in desegregated units

First United Nations “security action” 

22 nations sent troops and/or supplies to aid South Korea: 90 percent of all troops sent were American.  

U.S. troops still in Korea in 2023: 28,500

South Korean per capita GDP in 1950 (in dollars): $876 

North Korean per capita GDP in 1950 (in dollars): $654 

South Korean per capita GDP today: $33,390

North Korean per capita GDP today: $1,589

I was just a young fellow, inducted into the Army in February of 1951 at Fort Ord, California. I had never heard of Korea. I was assigned to F Company, 23rd Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division. My unit was located at a place called the Punch Bowl [the Haean Basin in the Gangwon province of South Korea]. My good buddy, J.C. Coffey, was just 18. He’d lied about his age and joined the Army at 16. We fought together in the Battle of Bloody Ridge and, from there, we went to Heartbreak Ridge on Sept. 13, 1951. We lived in foxholes on C-rations. 

You’d get a box every day with three cans of food, a box of chocolate, hardtack crackers and a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes. Often we’d be up all night for days. Every now and then, you’d get pulled off the front line, and you’d get to go back and get a hot shower and new fatigues. That hot shower? Oh, boy. Let me tell you. Believe it or not, they sprayed our hair with DDT to kill the lice.

At Heartbreak Ridge, North Korea had the advantage. They were occupying the ridge and looking down, and we were trying to take it. A North Korean tank came around a corner and fired three rounds on us. These shots wiped out my squad, and I was the only survivor. My buddy J.C. Coffey was killed. So was another buddy, named Zalesky. I was evacuated, sent to Japan to a hospital for a month, and when I was ready, I was sent back to my unit.

The worst day was Christmas, 1951. It’s very cold in Korea. Of course, you couldn’t light fires because you would give your position away. We had jackets, but we weren’t equipped for that cold weather. There were a lot of people getting frostbite. My platoon went out to give support because our guys were trying to retrieve a broken tank. We got out there and we started to get all this mortar fire coming at us. I was running, and I tripped and fell down. Finally I got into this bunker. There was a little tiny teacup upside down. I figured it was a booby trap, as I saw a little wire coming off the handle. So I shot this cup, and the whole bunker blew up. But the good Lord was watching over me. It was snowing pretty heavily, and we were worried that we might be cut off from our lines. But, fortunately, we made it back that night. And they had a hot meal waiting for us. That was Christmas night, 1951.

I came back in June of 1952. I felt I should call my buddy J.C. Coffey’s mother, since I was the last one with him. I gave her a call and she — oh, my gosh. That was tough. She had me crying on the phone. She told me how she had begged him not to go. She said, “He was my only son. He was only 16 when he left.” It took a year for me to get back to normal. I accepted it, and then I did OK. I went back to my family business, working on tuna vessels. I eventually became a captain on some of those larger tuna boats. It’s been 70 years since the armistice. Not a lot of media have spoken about it, to mark that occasion. That’s why they call it the Forgotten War, I guess. Let me tell you, it will never be forgotten for us soldiers and our families.

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Hal Simlak at home in Las Vegas on September 10, 2023.
Michael Friberg

An international effort

Harold “Hal” Simlak, 95, Las Vegas

  • Corporal, U.S. Army, served in Korea from April to December 1951 
  • A retired Ford Motor Co. executive

I grew up in the Detroit area. I got my call to go in the Army when the Korean War went down. I took basic training at Fort Ord in California, which doesn’t exist anymore. From there we went overseas. Yokohama was the landing port in Japan, and from there, to Pusan in Korea. I ended up with the 1st Cavalry Division, 5th Regiment, Company I. We knew we were there as an agreement to protect this country. At that time, communists were very strong. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania — they were all communist then. The communists had taken over China. Naturally, if they took Korea, they would take Japan next, Australia after that. No doubt about that. So we understood that we had a job we had to do.

We lived in foxholes. Everybody was on alert, all the time. When they sent in mortars, those mortars would explode into 5,000 little pieces. When you heard one coming in — you could hear them — you would dive into one of the holes. We naturally had a certain amount of fear, that any of us could go at any time. Of course, you said, “I’m not afraid.” We were. We had some guys, I hate to mention this, who cracked up. I saw several of them. They were calling for their mother. When a guy is in combat and he’s yelling for his mother, that’s fear. Everybody had a weapon. A weapon was like a third arm. I had a carbine that I carried with me. I slept with it. I think everybody did. Naturally, if a guy got killed in your outfit, you didn’t like it. We didn’t feel sorry. We felt bitterness toward the enemy. In my company, Company I, we had two brothers who were twins. One of them got killed, and they immediately pulled the other out of action, and they sent him home. We were all kind of shocked about that when we learned.

It makes you appreciate your life. You needed a certain amount of luck. I was hit by shrapnel and got the Purple Heart.” A unique thing about the Korean War was that we were there as part of the United Nations. We knew that right after World War II, that all these countries were organizing the United Nations. Exactly what that meant, we did not know until the war came along. Then it was more understood that all these countries were supposed to be cooperating, in protecting the world. [The U.N. was founded in 1945, five years before the Korean War started.] 

We had the Greeks attached to us. There were Belgian soldiers and soldiers from the Netherlands. The largest units next to us were the British. And the Canadians had a brigade of, like, 10,000 men. They were good soldiers, I’ll tell you that.

After the war, I came back and worked with a security company that made circuit breakers. Then I worked for Ford Motor Co. I have always felt proud of what we achieved in Korea. We understood why we were there. In Korea, in those days, there was no such thing as a factory. They were nice people. They worked with us, and they had a good army. We stopped communism from spreading. If you look at South Korea today, it’s nothing like it was then. There was nothing there then. Today, it has one of the largest economies in the world. A lot of people I talk to today do not know much about the Korean War. They are just learning now. And they are looking at this situation in Ukraine. Russia is trying to take over Ukraine, just like Russia tried to take over the Korean Peninsula. It is just like it was, when we were fighting in Korea, all these years later.

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Sgt Paul Cunningham stands along the walk leading up to a "Never Forget Garden" built in commemoration of the centennial of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the Woodcrest Villas retirement community on September 12, 2023, in Lancaster Pennsylvania.
Benjamin C. Tankersley

Walking Korean soil 72 years later

Paul H. Cunningham, 93, of Lancaster, Pennsylvania

  • Staff sergeant, U.S. Air Force, served in Korea from September 1950 to February 1952
  • A retired school administrator and curriculum director

I was born in the city of Lancaster. My father was in the Pennsylvania National Guard, and he had served in the Philippines and Siberia in 1919. In 1948, I graduated from John Piersol McCaskey High School. I thought I’d go into the military, and maybe by the end of my three years of service, I would know what I wanted to do. My dad found out about a program that, if I enlisted in the Air Force, I could apply for a tech school of my choice. I applied and got my first choice, to learn to be a radar repairman. 

I was sent to Keesler Field in Biloxi, Mississippi, then to Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina. We had just returned from a maneuver in North Carolina when, on June 25, 1950, the Korean War broke out. We were all hauled into the dayroom, and the squadron commander told us we were at war. He said, “President Truman has extended all your enlistments by one year.” We got word that we were going overseas. All signs pointed that we were going to Korea. And we did. 

On Sept. 20, 1950, we arrived at Pusan, and there we set up a radar station on the top of a hill. We moved to Osan, to Incheon, to Pyeongtaek and to Kimpo Air Base, west of Seoul, to operate and set up stations. Our mission was to maintain air surveillance over North and South Korea. Our radar tracked all aircraft, enemy and friendly, incoming and outgoing. We aimed for 24-hour coverage. We were given one hour a month for routine maintenance. So we were online virtually all the time. I was never in harm’s way. When we moved to Kimpo airfield, that was the closest I got to the front lines. But our radar performed a pretty important role. Our level of proficiency earned us both the U.S. and the Korean presidential unit citation.

I came back to my native Lancaster and became a history teacher. Later, I helped form a chapter of the Korean War Veterans Association. I guess I was a prime mover on it, because I became the first president, and in three years, we were the second largest of all the groups across the country. I was later elected president of the national Korean War Veterans Association. During my presidency, I had four invitations to visit Korea. I chose to decline because my presence here was more pressing. I did get to see other veterans go in my place. Before the pandemic, I chose not to run for reelection, and the invitations to Korea stopped during the pandemic. A year ago, they resumed, so I finally made the trip in September of last year as a guest of the South Korean government. 

It was the first time I was back since I left Korea in 1952. I was accompanied by my younger son and a grandson. At one point, I said to my son, “You know, we’re in Seoul. We’re not too far from my last duty station.” He said, “Dad, I’ll get a car and a driver.” I pinpointed my last duty station on a Google map, and we went there. Kimpo Air Base is now Gimpo International Airport. In 1952, there was this barren hill where we set up our radar station. There was still a radar station there. Our driver spoke to the guard at the gate and he let us through. I went to the top of the hill and I got to walk the soil that I had walked 72 years earlier. Back then, all we knew was that we were stopping communism in its tracks. That was a time when a red line meant something. A line drawn in the sand.

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(From left) Mike Farrell, Loretta Swit and Alan Alda, star in the television series 'M*A*S*H.'
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

The Korean War Imagined on Film and Screen

An oft-forgotten fact about the Forgotten War: It unfolded at the same time that televisions were arriving in America’s homes. It was the first war to be visualized on TV, starting with an episode called “Christmas in Korea” on the Edward R. Murrow news show See It Now. 

“This is Korea, this is the front,” Murrow says into the camera, sitting behind a wall of sandbags on Christmas Eve, 1952. “Just there, no man’s land begins. And on the ridges over there, the enemy positions can be clearly seen.” 

“It was a riveting journalistic production,” says David Bianculli, a professor, author and television critic on NPR’s Fresh Air With Terry Gross. “It brought home the reality of life in a war zone as never before.”

 There were Korean War movies, too. More than a dozen came out during the war’s three-year span, and more followed through the years. Standouts include The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and M*A*S*H (1970). 

But it was the M*A*S*H TV series that illuminated the Korean War experience for generations of viewers. The show’s timing was important, as it began airing at the tail end of the Vietnam War. “M*A*S*H brought an anti-war sensibility to a war program,” Bianculli says. “You could not do that with the Vietnam War while it was going on, but everyone understood the parallels.” M*A*S*H saw a trailblazing female character in Army Maj. Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan. It was also one of the first shows to kill off a character unexpectedly — Lt. Col. Henry Blake (played by McLean Stevenson). “The idea of life and death really played a factor, even among the doctors in this war,” Bianculli says. The show ran for so long (1972 to 1983) because, as Bianculli notes, “it was real life intertwined with fiction. It lasted four times as long as the war itself, because it told the story so well.”

— A.J. Baime

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