- - Tuesday, April 10, 2018


As I read the obituary in the newspaper on March 29 citing the death of renowned sculptor Frank Gaylord, my thoughts drifted back to that day several years ago when I was first exposed to his work. Mr. Gaylord created the 19 statues that are depicted in what many regard as the most beautiful and haunting of all the war memorials in Washington, D.C.

Most who have seen it are struck by the stark beauty of its realism. The memorial depicts a walking and weary platoon of 19 soldiers. These steel statues, with their helmets, guns, boots and ponchos, are so accurately sculpted that you almost expect them to take a step forward. “There is fatigue and alertness everywhere you look,” Washington Post architecture critic Benjamin Forgey wrote in 1995. “These ghostly soldiers in their windblown ponchos seem intensely real.”

But it’s their faces that haunt you, for they depict the faces of war: Looks of determination, fear, loneliness and grim resolve that Mr. Gaylord brilliantly captured. I’d seen these faces before. My father was burdened with them on the rare occasions he talked of a certain place that his generation was asked to defend. That place was Korea, and Mr. Gaylord’s statues are part of the National Korean War Veterans Memorial.

The war is often referred to as “The Forgotten War,” and it’s easy to see why. While the conflict was raging from 1950 to 1953, it was not uncommon for newspapers to relegate stories from Korea to the back pages. With the horrific memories of WWII still fresh in their minds, Americans didn’t want to deal with the harsh realities of this new conflict.

The soldiers returning from Korea were greeted with little fanfare here in the U.S. When my father returned in 1952, the first thing my grandfather asked him was if he had a job lined up. My dad told me “that’s just the way it was back then,” and like the other returning soldiers, he very quickly and quietly merged back into society. History books now barely mention it, and many young people know nothing about it.

With a determination and resolve characteristic of their generation, the veterans of the Korean War waged one of the fiercest fights in the annals of U.S. military history. In a conflict that witnessed American and Communist forces meeting each other on the battlefield for the first time, both armies hurled each other up and down the Korean peninsula. The battles were often as brutal as the harsh Korean winters.

After enduring some initial defeats at the hands of the Communist North Korean and Chinese armies, the U.S. and U.N. forces, under the brilliant command of Gen. Matthew Ridgway, began to turn the tide of battle in early 1951. American-led U.N. soldiers repeatedly routed the massive “human wave” assaults of the North Koreans and Chinese, and after a prolonged stalemate, an armistice was eventually signed in 1953. The South Koreans remain free to this day, and their nation is among the most prosperous in Asia.

Throughout the duration of the Cold War, Communist leaders surely remembered the “bloody nose” they received in Korea and set a much less aggressive agenda in the subsequent years that followed. Many historians now believe that the seeds of our eventual Cold War victory were sewn on the battlefields of Korea. Perhaps the most enduring tribute to the Korean War veterans was given by British military historian Max Hastings in his seminal book, “The Korean War”:

“The men who turned the tide on the battlefield in Korea in the first weeks of 1951 may have also saved the world from the nightmare of a new Hiroshima in Asia.”

The brother of a GI killed during the war told me that he hates the term “The Forgotten War.” He said, “My brother is not forgotten, and there’s not a day that goes by that my family and I don’t think about him.” The time has come for all of us to remember the Korean War, and its importance in U.S. history. The United States emerged triumphant from the bitter ashes of the Cold War, but the first steps toward that victory were tread over 65 years ago by American soldiers on the often frozen ground of the Korean peninsula.

2018 marks the 65th anniversary of the end of the Korean War. If you ever get the opportunity, visit the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and remember the men who fought there so long ago. And if you happen to see some older gentlemen there, with the same haunting faces as the statues, let them know that they’re not forgotten.

Chris Gibbons is a Philadelphia writer. [email protected]

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