While North Korea cast ominous shadows around the globe with Kim Jong Un’s recent execution of his uncle (2014), a dozen local Korean classical music lovers enjoyed an evening of food, music, caroling and friendship with three Korean War veterans and their spouses. The Korean group has been gathering monthly for several years to hear lectures from a self-taught music historian and scholar, retired electrical engineer Ken Chung. But for this occasion, there were special bonuses — the Christmas stories of American soldiers of the long-ago-war that had nearly consumed the group’s homeland in the early 1950s.
“On Christmas Eve in 1952, I flew over the 38th Parallel in a B-29 on a bombing mission as a tail gunner,” veteran Tom Stevens, 80, began. “…We flew only at night so that the Russian MiG-15 could not spot and shoot us down. That night, we left Okinawa with 20,000 pounds of explosives. I was so concentrated on the mission at hand that I had not realized that it was Christmas Eve until we were on the way.”
Stevens said he shivered as ice formed around the aircraft windows, but it didn’t bother him much since he had a bed back at the home base where he could rest once the flight ended. It was an easy life for him compared to those whose missions forced them to sleep without covers in frozen fields, he said. “Though many B-29s were shot down by Russian MiG-15s and anti aircraft fire from the ground, and many crew members were lost, I never actually worried about my own safety.
“I guess because I was only 19. When you’re that young, life seems sturdy and everlasting. But today, I’m very grateful for all of my 27 bombing missions, which I completed without a scratch.”
Veteran Dale Kuhn, 86, is still tormented by memories of the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, in which Chinese troops severely attacked the U.S. Marines in late November 1950. On Christmas Eve that year, he believes he was on a troop ship as part of the Hungnam Evacuation that took military personnel and North Korean refugees south to safety. “Most of us Marines who survived the Chinese ambush on Chosin Reservoir had been sick, dirty, and were in conditions difficult to describe,” Kuhn recalled. “Some of the ships carried as many as 14,000 people, both Americans and North Koreans, all glad to be alive… It was a phenomenal operation when you think about it.”
John Cantrell, 82, remembered that he rode a cargo train heading from Pusan to Seoul on Christmas Eve 1952. As a military police officer, he provided security for the train that transported military goods to army bases between the two cities.
To me, a Korean American, Christmas Eve of 1950 remains a sorrowful Christmas. It was the day the nation heard unbelievable news: the commander of the U.S. Eighth Army, Gen. Walton Walker, had been killed the night before, not by the Communists but in a traffic crash. A South Korea military truck had skidded on a snow-covered mountain road and collided with the Jeep in which the general was a passenger.
The general was returning from visiting “his boys” at the front and had been heading toward Seoul, where his wife and son, Sam Walker, who was a lieutenant at the time, had been waiting for him. What followed on the news was both gruesome and heart-warming. Our distraught president, Syngman Rhee, who worshiped the American generals fighting for our freedom, ordered the South Korean military to execute the injured truck driver, accusing him as a possible North Korean sympathizer. But American generals talked him out of it, reasoning that the accident wasn’t the driver’s fault.
Since the 60th anniversary of the armistice of the Korean War is ending soon, this humble gathering of Koreans and their saviors offered everyone an opportunity to look back when the old South Korea was at the brink of perishing from the face of the world and to appreciate the South Korea of today, whose freedom and remarkable progress was granted by all those who paid a high price during the unforgettable war.