More than 54,000 Americans died in the Korean War, or “conflict,” as it was referred to, from 1950 through 1953. Or died of their injuries later. Half a million South Koreans and other United Nations troops fell, and more than 1 million GIs and their allies brought home wounds and nightmares and other terrible souvenirs of war.
An estimated 2 million North Korean and Chinese soldiers perished in the conflict, too.
It was the last foot soldier’s war, with a howling, swarming enemy attacking in force, bayonet to bayonet. The last trenches. The final foxholes. The last black-and-white TV war. Look now at the gritty battlefield photographs and see the soldiers’ eyes, blackened with grime, sunken from fatigue, glistening with tears. But steeled with resolve.
The years have fogged memories of that time. It’s often called “The Forgotten War,” and even when it raged it was out of mind for much of a nation weary of war and longing to get on to the good life.
It was a far-off dispute, a vexing hot spot in a Cold War, waged with diplomats’ words along with infantrymen’s guns.
Except for the widows and families, this was not the shared national crusade so recently won in the war we call The Big One – World War Two. Antiwar vitriol had not yet found a voice, but neither had collective national gratitude for soldiers’ service.
Yellow ribbons were one war away.
To American schoolchildren today, Douglas MacArthur and Matthew Ridgeway and Mark Clark are just old, dead guys, if the names of these American generals in that war are known at all. The veterans of bloody places such as “Porkchop Hill” and “Heartbreak Ridge” — and of a hundred other hot, then frozen, places in Korea, are gray or gone.
But those who fought there, believing they were carrying freedom’s standard against totalitarianism, are not forgotten.
A haunting Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., is a belated tribute to their heroic deeds and — more remarkably as such memorials go — to the service of support forces that made heroism possible.
The memorial is not an equestrian statue of one general or a roll call of the dead. It is a solemn salute to the soldiers who warily trod forward through rice paddies and up fiercely contested hills. And to mechanics, cooks, sailors, nurses, airmen, and thousands of other men and women in uniform who repelled a determined foe on a distant thumb of land at Japan’s door.
Few words, and no names, encumber this place. Faces — thousands and thousands of faces — and 19 bigger-than-life, stainless steel figures in battle gear lead visitors out of a sylvan wood into the reality of battle and its terrible consequences.
But this is not a memorial that glorifies war. It proclaims a broader message about the willingness to serve in a citizens’ army that lies at the heart of the American democracy. An inscription on a wall puts it into four simple words:
FREEDOM IS NOT FREE
Thirty-three years after the American men and women of the Korean War came home, Congress at last recognized their sacrifice and service by authorizing the memorial. Because of the welter of agencies involved in creating a memorial on Washington’s treasured National Mall, it took three times longer to approve, design, and build the Korean War Veterans Memorial than it did to fight the war.
The finished memorial, placed in a wooded grove that had been a 19th-Century Army Corps of Engineers landfill, cost just over $14 million. The bulk of it was raised from small donations by veterans, by the sale of a congressionally-authorized $1 coin, and by corporate contributions — notably, Korean firms operating in America.
It was soon decided that the memorial would honor, but not name, the Korean War dead. It was not to be another eternal gravestone. It would commemorate all who served, not just those who carried carbines. It would reflect the contributions and sacrifices of the 22 other U.N. countries that fought alongside Americans.
Frank Gaylord of Barre, Vermont, a World War II combat veteran, was selected as the memorial’s sculptor.
His assignment: create a battle-ready combat patrol in which each figure was assigned a specific branch of service, rank, ethnicity, and military function.
The original concept called for 38 troopers, symbolizing the 38th Parallel — the Northern Hemisphere line of latitude used as the pre-Korean War boundary between North Korea and South Korea. But that number proved too large for the space and put the soldiers too close together to accurately represent troops on patrol. So it was cut in half.
The memorial’s second element, a polished granite wall, helped solve the problem: The 19 figures would be reflected in the wall to achieve the symbolic number.
After extended debate with the memorial’s architect, the Washington firm Cooper•Lecky, the sculptor and advisory board agreed to clad the troopers in wind-blown ponchos, which conjure up northern Korea’s nightmarish weather, blur specific insignias, and help downplay the soldiers’ military hardware.
It was also decided to make the troopers 2.1 meters (7 feet) tall, slightly larger than life but not menacing.
The soldiers are shown advancing warily out of the woods, “chattering” among themselves by voice and gesture. Gaylord worked in unpolished stainless steel in order to give the figures definition and a raw, virile quality reminiscent of the black-and-white photos of the conflict.
But how to honor support personnel?
Louis Nelson of New York City developed a mural etched into a granite wall that flanks the column of troopers. Nelson has referred to his wall as “the nation’s mantelpiece,” reminiscent of families’ proud display of photographs of sons and daughters away at war.
On it, the faces of actual chaplains and mechanics and nurses and other military team members — taken from real photos — present a delicate, eerie image.
Because of the multiple messages already inherent in the design, Cooper•Lecky and the advisory board were reluctant to clutter the memorial with allegorical inscriptions. Because of its prominent location on the National Mall, Kent Cooper had long been concerned that it give voice to the general theme of military service to country, as well as honoring those who served and fell in Korea.
When, in 1988, Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci marked the 35th anniversary of the cease-fire that ended the Korean War, he spoke of the willingness of America’s uniformed sons and daughters who took up arms to defend a distant nation. His words were then adapted for the dedicatory statement that appears at the site:
OUR NATION HONORS
HER UNIFORMED SONS AND DAUGHTERS
WHO ANSWERED THEIR COUNTRY’S CALL
TO DEFEND A COUNTRY THEY DID NOT KNOW
AND A PEOPLE THEY HAD NEVER MET
The inscription was inlaid into an eight-ton triangular stone beneath a great flagpole — turning the visitor’s eye back into the field of troopers and the wall of faces.
An even bolder, more profound, and simpler statement was chosen as a second focal point, where the mural wall penetrates the water of a circular reflecting pool, meant to symbolize a place for reflection on the dead, wounded, captured, and missing of the war.
Its FREEDOM IS NOT FREE saying was borrowed from the memorial’s own advisory board, which had seen it above the entrance to the American Legion headquarters building elsewhere in town. No one there could tell them exactly where the message originated.
The unprecedented impact of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, directly across the Mall from this new memorial, prompted many vets to suggest a similar wall to honor the Korean War dead. After heated debate, the suggestion was rejected as being duplicative and neglectful of others who served.
The solution is a National Park Service kiosk at the head of the walkway leading into the memorial, where interactive computer screens flash endless images of those who died in Korea, often in the prime of youth. Visitors may punch up a known name and see the person’s service record and other background, as well as family snapshots and portraits where available.
I found the most powerful experience at the Korean War Veterans Memorial to be the mingling of images in the polished granite wall — not just those of the steel troopers and the stone etchings, but of myself and others reflected back to us as we looked at them.
Speaking about the sculpture, architect William Lecky told me:
There’s no question that there was healthy conflict between what the client wanted, which was something very realistic and militarily accurate, and what the reviewing commissions — the artistic side, if you will — preferred, which was something more abstract. The final solution was what we like to call “impressionistic styling,” which makes it clear what is being portrayed, but diminishes the sense of an actual collection of ground troops moving across the Mall.
One veteran who came for the memorial’s opening described his visit as “mystical — ghostly, almost.” Another said he would be back during the first bitter-cold, snowy winter day. “That,” he said, “was Korea.”
Another found himself staring at the faces. “I know him,” he’d say, before moving on to another figure. “He didn’t come back.”
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Allegorical. Relating to an allegory, or metaphorical story or saying. The saying “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” for instance, isn’t about fire at all.
G.I. An American soldier. The origin of the term is debated. Some say it traces to “government issue,” as in soldiers’ uniforms. Others say it refers to the “galvanized iron” objects common in early Army barracks, including trash cans, tables, and cutlery.
Welter. A large, often confusing, number of things in no particular order.