It’s difficult to believe that something that involved 1.8 million Americans and killed almost 37,000 of them can be “forgotten.” Yet so it seems with the Korean War. Over the past few years, entities like the U.S. Navy have characterized the 37-month war as “forgotten” — a term, historian Melinda Pash notes, that was first used to characterize the war even as it was still being fought. Villager John McWaters doesn’t — or perhaps cannot — forget it. McWaters, a retired Army two-star general, gave the first three years of his 38-year military career to helping prevent the communist takeover of South Korea.
The war ended 68 years ago today, and also today at Veterans’ Memorial Park in The Villages, McWaters, of the Village of Bonnybrook, will be the keynote speaker at a commemoration of the armistice. The event begins at 10 a.m.
A History Lesson
In a recent interview, McWaters said his remarks will include things “that most people don’t know” about Korea.
For example, the fact that America inked a treaty with Korean leaders in 1882.
According to the State Department, the treaty was the first that Korea signed with a foreign country, and the pact pledged mutual assistance in case one partner was attacked.
McWaters added that he will discuss how little Americans seemed to appreciate the interest Japan, China and Russia all had in the internal control of Korea throughout the 20th century.
“I don’t think the American people halfway understood (the war) while it was going on,” he said.
McWaters recalled that when the cease-fire was announced — no treaty has ever been signed to formally end the war — U.S. troops erupted in cheers.
The reaction at home, however, was far different. Historian Zachary Matusheski noted in an article for the Wilson Center last year that the muted reaction of an ambiguous public “pushed many Korean War veterans to bury their association with the war and embrace silence.”
McWaters acknowledged that he has struggled to understand why those who fought in Korea failed to receive the same recognition as those from other wars.
“We won our war,” he added. “South Korea is better off today ... to me, South Korea is a modern miracle.”
At the same time, that fact also causes McWaters to shake his head.
When the armistice was approved, he said, “We thought it was over and North Korea was gonna have to suck it up. If somebody had told us then that we’d still be arguing over this in 2021, none of us would’ve believed it.”
McWaters is not optimistic that the current situation will change soon.
The decadeslong lack of widespread recognition of U.S. troops who fought in Korea may show up in other ways.
The national Korean War Veterans Association, which formed in 1985, has about 8,000 active members, according to Village of Woodbury resident Mark Carey, the communications manager for Korean War Veterans Association Chapter 169, of which McWaters is the commander.
Comparatively, the Vietnam Veterans of America group has more than 85,000 members — even though, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, in Korea both the number of troops who served and the rate of those killed in action more than doubles that of Vietnam.
The national organization once opened membership to any honorably discharged soldier who served in Korea, not just war veterans. Yet that has not done enough to allay McWaters’ concerns about recruiting.
“Somehow we’ve got to pass the baton to these younger men,” he said.
Carey was one of those younger soldiers.
He said he joined Chapter 169 a couple years ago after learning that the group would help him obtain the Korea Defense Service Medal, which is presented to any soldier who served in South Korea between the 1953 armistice and 2002, when the medal was created.
Carey served there as an Army field artillery officer from November 1977 to November 1978.
Fixing a Common Problem
Recruitment woes are common across veterans’ organizations, Carey said. But the problem is especially acute among Korea vets.
A presentation he produced for the association’s national governing board last year offered “very alarming” results, he said. For each new member the association attracts, nine die, said Carey. Additionally, 90% of active members are 80 or older.
He said he believes the Wall of Remembrance in Washington, a monument now under construction that will identify the names of American and South Korean soldiers killed in the war, will bring some long overdue recognition of Korean War veterans.
Additionally, serving in Korea is unique because of the unforgettable cold and the general hardship of having been there, Carey said. Highlighting that “shared experience” can build camaraderie and aid recruiting.
But promoting the Korea Defense Service Medal also could help boost membership, he added.
“The key is telling people they can get that medal. Most people don’t know about it. There is an opportunity to attract some of those people,” Carey said.
“We need to get members,” he added. “Time is creeping up very quickly on the Korean War vets.”
Staff writer Bill Thompson can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5228, or firstname.lastname@example.org.