MONTICELLO -- As a Marine serving in Korea in 1952, Sam McPheeters almost didn't make it home.
The lifelong Monticello resident will always remember getting the call for a major mission the night before he was scheduled to head back to the United States.
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His last battle ended up being an unsuccessful effort to take "The Hook," a hilly area northwest of Seoul.
"We lost a good part of our company that day," McPheeters told the Journal-Republican this week. By Steve Hoffman. The (Champaign) News-Gazette.
But in a return trip to Korea on July 24-30 of this year, the 82-year veteran saw that the United Nations effort 60 years ago was well worth it, as he viewed a country that had transformed itself from devastation to a modern, thriving, industrial nation full of skyscrapers, good roads and, most of all, gracious people.
"These people in 60 years have completely changed the country. They've modernized it; it's one of the most industrial nations in the world," said McPheeters.
He also saw appreciation, ranging from retired admirals to a shopkeeper on the street who handed him a free pair of stockings for helping defend his country so long ago.
"They're not going to let the world forget what the U.N. did for them. They treated us like kings. And they're the most polite people you've ever seen in your life," said McPheeters, a founding member of the Monticello VFW Post 5346 and a 50-year member of the local American Legion post. He also helped found the Veterans Assistance Commission that is housed in Monticello.
The Korea trip was made possible by the Revisit Korea Program, sponsored by the Sae Eden Presbyterian Church in Korea, which has scheduled such visits since 2007. Those who served in Korea between June 1950 and July 195 and who have not visited Korea in the last seven years are eligible to apply, with the program picking up the tab. All McPheeters had to pay for was souvenirs and the occasional soft drink or bottle of water.
Participants were showered with gifts, from ball caps and mugs to silk scarves and a jewelry/music box. They were treated to concerts and banquets and toured the Korean War Museum, national cemetery, took part in a prayer service, and viewed the room where peace talks still occur. In it is a table that is half in North Korea, half in South Korea.
The fighting between North and South Korea technically ended when a cease-fire was signed in July 1953, but McPheeters said feelings are still tense along the infamous DMZ -- the demilitarized zone -- that divides the two nations. So while he felt completely safe in South Korea, he was warned to be careful when the tour was near the border.
"We were told not to wave at North Koreans, and to not make any motions toward them," he said.
It was all pretty overwhelming for McPheeters, one of 16 who flew from Chicago to Korea to take part in the most recent Revisit trip.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I'd go back tomorrow if I could," he said.