–We often hear about the feats of great generals, presidents, and others; we don’t hear enough about common soldiers who granted South Korea freedom. I want to change that– Commander Tom Stevens, National KWVA.
When I, a Korean-American, think of the president of the KWVA in Overland Park Tom Steven’s recent rise to commander of the National KWVA in Washington D.C., a Korean proverb comes to my mind: “A dragon can rise from your own backyard creek.”
His first day in office began on June 25th, 2016, on the 66th anniversary of North Korea’s invasion of South with Russian tanks on June 25, 1950.
More than six decades ago, as a Korean child during the Forgotten War (1950-1953) I witnessed the American troops’ sacrifices in our country to grant us freedom.
And half century later in the beginning of the 21 century, I again witnessed the local veterans’ dedicated teamwork to raise funds to build their memorial to honor 415 fallen Kansans with whom they had shared the bitter North Korean winters, fear of dying, and some even the Death March, a 100 mile stretch from Seoul to POW camp along Yalu in freezing temperature, and a dismal life in captivity.
The idea of building the memorial was first expressed by two veterans in early 2000, late John Williams and Jack Krumme, based on the common wishes of their comrades. After brainstorming for the possibilities, the Memorial Committee was formed.
As the Association Secretary and a member of the Memorial Committee at the time, Stevens played the role of a midwife, making sure the birth of the KWV Memorial would become a reality. He alone wrote countless letters to government funding agencies, corporations, charitable trust, and individuals. Local Attorney Byron C. Loudon, then a member of the city council, offered his free legal services.
At age 19, Tom Stevens had been a tail-gunner of B-29 who completed 27 bombing missions to North Korea in 1952.
About this time in Korea, the peace talk between Chinese delegates and U.N. leaders wasn’t progressing as they had anticipated, while killing with real weapons between the Allied Forces and Chinese communists continued. About this time, Pyongyang was devastated from the U.S. bombing, and the North Korean leader Kim Il-sung was hiding in a bunker with his 7-year-old son Kim Jong-il (Kim Jong-un’s father), after his wife died during childbirth.
In 2003, three years after the veterans expressed their goal to build the Memorial to the Overland Park City council, the city officials not only approved the plan but also donated the land immediately North of Tomahawk Ridge Community Center at 119th and Lowell.
The site-dedication was held on August 23, 2003, in which several hundred local residents, including South Koreans, attended and heard then Senator Sam Brownback’s keynote address and heard then National KWVA Chairman Harley Coon’s harrowing tale of his captivity in the POW camp in the North as well as the cruelty his fellow American inmates received by the Communists.
After the ceremony ended, Tom Stevens and the veterans had a surprise.
Gen. Robert Shirkey, veteran of both WWII and Korean War, donated $500 “seed money.”
The following two years, the 70-member association hosted pancake breakfasts, garage sales, and golf tournaments. The local Korean-American society launched a fund-raising campaign of their own, for the veterans Association, including a dedicated Korean-American ladies group that hosted luncheons for the veterans–on Memorial Day and the Veterans Day.
At a luncheon in May, 2004, I heard then Association president Jack Krumme’s passionate speech, revealing that the Association had $20,000 in the bank for the construction of the memorial at the time but needed 30 times more to make their dream come true. He urged 150 attendees to please help and spread the news, so that the construction could begin some time in 2006.
The veterans fundraising efforts accelerated in December 2004, when the Bush administration awarded them with $371,250 for the construction of the Memorial!
The construction didn’t have to wait until 2006 after all! It began in October 2005.
On September 30, 2006, the Memorial was dedicated in the presence of 1,000 well-wishers, veterans, and their supporters, with former Chairman of the Joint chief of Staff Gen. Richard B. Meyer’s keynote speech. Two national anthems resounded at the Monument: the South Korean Anthem sung by the Kansas City Korean Choir, and the “Star-Spangled Banner” performed by the Greater Kansas City American Legion Band.
One of the honored guests, then South Korean Consul General Wook Kim from Chicago, expressed his gratitude in a reflective voice: “The seed of freedom and democracy you have planted in Korea more than 50 years ago has blossomed, and now South Korea has a full-fledged democracy and seeks to help spread democracy and free will around the world.”
Incidentally, 53 years earlier, on the same day, September 31st, the US and South Korea Mutual Defense Alliance Agreement was signed by the leaders of both sides. President Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House then. It was two months after the war ended with the armistice, and today, even after more than sixty years, the two countries are still bound in their agreement to achieve the global peace, by conducting joint military exercises together every two years.
Ever since the dedication of the Memorial, the fallen heroes have been honored in solemnity twice a year–on Memorial Day and on Veterans Day in November. The unveiling of Chaplain Emil Kapaun’s panel on Veterans Day 2013, during which time Abbot Gregory Polan of Conception Abbey Seminary College, where Fr. Kapaun had attended four years, blessed the panel and delivered a moving speech about the “Humble priest” was particularly memorable for me, since I had read about him in Korea as a youngster.
Among a dozen Korean War Veterans Memorials I’ve visited nationwide, including the one in Washington D.C., I find “our” Memorial here in Overland Park the most beautiful.
Under “FREEDOM IS NOT FREE” engraved in bold letters across the 75-foot-long, curved red granite wall bears 415 names of Kansas heroes and the inscriptions below explaining how they fought for our country’s freedom. On the east end of the Monument stands a tall wall of rocks symbolizing the rugged Korean battlefronts. At the entrance of the Memorial stand 38 stalls representing the 38th Parallel, the invisible Iron Wall that still divides Korea.
The colossal Bronze statue of an American soldier in a combat outfit leaning on his rifle in the center of the Memorial, his head lowered, says much about American troops’ pains of losing their comrades in the distant battlefields.
Without Commander Tom Stevens’ vision and dedication, the birth of this beautiful monument might not stand where it does today. And I believe, with his vision and dedication, he’ll make a new page in the history of the National Korean Veterans Association during his two-year term.