Since Jin Lee of Des Plaines immigrated with his parents to the United States in 1975 from Seoul, South Korea, he has wanted to pay tribute to the American soldiers who kept his homeland free.
After arriving in Texas as a teenager, Lee became fascinated at how Americans portrayed his country in publications such as Time, Life and the National Geographic. He later began collecting medals, newspaper articles and artifacts brought home by American soldiers that wound up in flea markets and garage sales.
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Over the years, he has sponsored small exhibits on the Korean War, but the one he recently opened at the Skokie Heritage Museum commemorating the 60th anniversary of the cease-fire armistice ending that bloody conflict is his grand achievement.
"It is so important that we, as the current generation, remember the Korean War and thank each veteran individually who helped keep South Korea free," the 51-year-old Lee said. "They are the reason we are living safely and comfortably here in the United States."
The exhibit, "The Forgotten War Remembered," features photos, maps, original newspaper and magazine articles, uniforms, flags, medals and other war artifacts from Lee's collection -- some one-of-a-kind -- and donations from Korean War veterans living in the area.
The items on display include a letter written by U.S. Sen. Paul Douglas of Illinois explaining to a disgruntled American citizen why President Harry Truman dismissed Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who had challenged civilian leadership of the war.
There is also a postcard signed by Gen. William F. Dean, the highest-ranking officer captured by the North Koreans. Dean received the U.S. Medal of Honor at the Battle of Taejon, where he fought off the enemy with his sidearm until taken prisoner.
"I realized that the children of deceased veterans were throwing away these items and someday they would all be lost," Lee said.
He conceived of creating an exhibit where veterans -- many who are now in their 80s -- could lend or donate their war relics to his exhibit and afterward to his care.
"I plan to preserve and someday leave these historical items entrusted to my care to a permanent museum dedicated to the Korean War, which I will work to help establish," Lee said
He said he also wants to educate South Korean youth and future generations on what happened to their country, why it is still divided -- the only one so partitioned in the world.
"I want them to know about and remember the sacrifices, courage and perseverance it took to stop and roll back North Korean and Chinese communist aggression that left millions dead, wounded and homeless," Lee said.
"Hearing from the veterans about the war is priceless," said Jennifer Chang, 33, a Skokie resident originally from Seoul, South Korea, who attended the exhibit's June 22 opening ceremonies.
Mason Jeon, 36, from Seoul and now living in Arlington Heights, echoed Lee's concern. "My generation does not know about the war," he said. "That is why this exhibit is so important."
Though never officially declared a war, it was a brutal conflict that raged from June 25, 1950, to July 27, 1953, between North and South Korea, and pitted U.S. soldiers against massive onslaughts of Chinese communist troops.
When the United Nations, China and North Korea signed a cease-fire armistice ending the Korean War 60 years ago, U.S. casualties amounted to more than 33,000 killed, 100,000 wounded and 7,000 taken prisoner.
Thousands more were missing in action and would die of wounds. Millions of civilians had perished, many the victims of atrocities committed by the North Korean Army.
American soldiers were dubbed "the walking wounded" because they were patched up in the field and sent back into battle -- a savage existence where ever-changing front lines, hand-to-hand combat, merciless artillery barrages, amputations from frostbite and death from dysentery were commonplace.
The exhibit provides a retrospect on how ferocious and extensive the fighting was that involved America and its United Nations allies. U.S. troops by far bore the brunt of combat by land, air and sea.
Louis Krueger, 83, of Chicago, who was in the 2nd Engineer Group from October 1951 until March 1953, donated a photo of himself taken on the 38th Parallel -- the dividing line between North and South Korea. His unit provided operational support for a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.
"Helicopters carrying wounded flew in day and night," Krueger recalled, adding he survived two brutal winters where temperatures often dipped to 30 degrees below zero.
"When I think of what the American soldiers endured and what would have happened without their help …" an emotional Lee said without finishing his sentence.
The exhibit runs until Sept. 26. For information, call the Skokie Heritage Museum at (847) 677-6672.