Monday, November 10, 2008

Veterans of the Korean War

Oostburg area Veterans march in the 2008 Milwaukee Veterans Day Parade Saturday, November 8. Barb Harwood, photo

In the summer of 2003, I was assigned by the Sheboygan Press to cover the 50th anniversary of the Korean War. Not knowing all that much about the war myself, I embarked on a journey that would forever change the meaning of the word "Veteran" to me.

As part of my research, I read two excellent books: "This Kind of War: The Classic Korean War History" by T. R. Fehrenbach and "The Korean War: Uncertain Victory, Vol. 2" by Donald Knox, where I learned that the death toll for U.S. Service Personnel in Korea over three years (June 24, 1950-July 27, 1953) was virtually the same as in 10 years in Vietnam.

I interviewed and spent many hours with local Korean War Veterans, mainly from the Oostburg area. Tears came to the surface often as one man, a gunner on a B-24 who earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for extraordinary achievement in aerial flight, relayed his stories. His wife sat in the room with us and quietly told me after the interview that she had never heard her husband share some of these things before. Most of the men I spent time with had tears in their eyes as they relayed their Korean War experience, 50 years after the fact. For these men, the war will never be over and the men they personally served with will never be forgotten. It is these men, along with all Veterans, that I honor this week.

After I wrote the newspaper series, I attempted to get my thoughts about these men, who weren't much older when they served than my oldest son is now, down on paper in the form of a poem. I had always loved to read and write poetry. But as I wrote and re-configured the words, it became more and more ludicrous to me to attempt to put all that I'd heard from these men into a poem. Poetry seemed to trivialize everything. So I wrote something that, essentially, says how poetry--a metaphor for so much else in life--loses all meaning and purpose when held up against what the men and women experienced in the horror of the Korean War. The albeit futile vessel that follows is the end result:

No Words for Korean War

I could write of primroses and beach glass
But what would that mean to you,
a man who served 51 years ago
in the Korean Theater,
a stage of death so senseless
that nobody in the States wanted
to hear about it
or even to remember.

You were 18
fresh from a land of maple trees
and humble brick bungalows
A place where the fourth of July was marked
by flags
hanging from the front stoop
and boys pushed mowers
over postage stamp lawns.
Your life rolled out in front of you
like so many Iowa farm fields;
a life barely grown
and too young for war's threshing floor.
You found,
and lost yourself,
in Korea;
Porkshop Hill, Bloody Ridge,
crossing the river at Inch'on--
faces of boys you'd just met
blown away in front of you.
You scribbled letters home
not knowing what to say.

As fog skimmed another tranquil Wisconsin lake on a June morning
As thick white snowflakes fell softly
in neighborhoods bedecked with Christmas lights
In Korea
days of humid rain
gave way to snow.
You "dug-in" through the permafrost
to make a bed for your hour of sleep.
Back in the States
they didn’t know
and never thought to ask.

While poets waxed quixotic--
and still do--
of starry skies and pouring tea
What is that to boys and men
for whom the stars have died
and pretense is no more.

"Jesus wept." John 11:35

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