Sixty years ago this week, American forces in Korea engaged in what would be their final combat of the three-year war. Guns fell silent on July 27, 1953, as an armistice agreement was signed in Panmunjom, splitting the nation and establishing a demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.
The U.N. forces, including 1.7 million Americans, headed home. Sadly, 36,000 soldiers who perished, 1,754 of them from Illinois, never got the chance.
Americans typically know less about this "Forgotten War" than the other major conflicts of the past century. Beyond the "M*A*S*H" television series, there is little in our popular culture that reminds us of the sacrifice of the soldiers and other military personnel who courageously countered Soviet-backed troops in an era of widening Communism.
Too little attention is paid to these heroes. But their advocates in Illinois, determined to change that, worked as the 60th-year milestone drew near to ensure that veterans of the Korean War would not be overlooked. Veterans Affairs and other state agencies sponsored an initiative called "Illinois Remembers the Forgotten War," providing news media with periodic history lessons as well as the names of Illinoisans killed in action.
Local groups caught the spirit. In June, the Lexington Square senior residence in Lombard held a special program open to the public that honored veterans and featured a renowned speaker. Last spring, Jin Lee, a Des Plaines resident who immigrated from South Korea in 1975, created an exhibit to thank local veterans who fought to keep his country free. For years he collected articles, photos, uniforms, medals and other war artifacts, and they are now on display at the Skokie Heritage Museum.
"I realized that the children of deceased veterans were throwing away these items and someday they would all be lost," Lee said.
Indeed, fewer and fewer who served in Korea are left among us. One group of students at St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights endeavored to track down local veterans, interview them and then compile their stories into a book. "Lest We Forget," published in 2011, details the war experiences of 18 of them. One student wrote about her grandfather, Dr. Patrick Meekin, who joined the Army during the "doctor draft" of the 1950s, then found himself laboring in a tiny medical ward near the DMZ several years after the war had ended.
Another soldier, Carl Brandon, joined the Army at 17 to see the world, but then experienced the bitter cold, searing heat, hunger, illness and intense stress of combat in Korea. Brandon, 81, now lives in Arlington Heights, and two of his grandsons, following in his footsteps, have served in the Middle East.
Brandon notes that when he came home in 1951, "there was no fanfare, no nothing" -- a contrast to the hero's welcome many soldiers receive today. But when grandson Carl III recently returned to crowds and a motorcycle brigade, word got out about Brandon, and he too was given a token of recognition at the event, more than a half-century past due.
These stories, projects and remembrances come too late for many veterans of the Korean War, but we all can appreciate their legacy. Especially on tomorrow's anniversary, let's make a place in our hearts for gratitude to them.