Remembering the “Forgotten War”

The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Salutes the Armed Forces.

The battle over the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. lasted longer -and at time seemed more contentious- than the war itself.


In June 1950, President Harry S. Truman agreed to send U.S. troops to Korea to fight the North Korean army. Three years later, a truce was signed between North and South Korea, -a truce that remains uneasy to this day- the fighting stopped, and U.S. troops went home.

Compared to what the United States had experienced during World War II, the Korean War seemed like a mere dalliance. Some insisted on deeming it a “conflict” and even Truman called it a “police action.” More than one soldier has told the story of how, on returning home, old friends would say “Where have you been? Haven’t seen you around lately.” When the soldier explained that he’d been in Korea, his pals responded with blank looks. Many folks stateside had never heard of the place, let alone that a war had been raging there for three solid years.

Yet in those three years, American casualties in Korea numbered more than 54,000 dead, 8,000 missing in action, and 100,000 wounded. Hundreds of thousands of American men and women served and fought in the Korean War. Something needed to be done to commemorate their bravery, to honor their service. America needed to build a Korean War memorial in Washington, D.C.


By 1984, more than 30 years after the war’s end, at least two veterans’ groups had formed to seek government support for a Korean War memorial in Washington, DC. The highly publicized Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial had been dedicated two years earlier, and the time seemed right to put plans for the Korean War Veterans Memorial into action.

In 1986 both the House and Senate approved a plan to build a memorial. In 1987 President Ronald Reagan appointed 12 Korean War veterans to serve on the Korean War Veterans Memorial Advisory Board; they included the CEO of Mack Trucks, a smattering of colonels and generals, and representatives from several veterans’ organizations. Things seemed to be moving forward.

(Image credit: Flickr user Tom Adamson)


The Pennsylvania firm hired to design the memorial submitted its design and the advisory board rejected it, reportedly claiming that it was not heroic enough. When the advisory board brought in another architectural firm to adapt the original design, the Pennsylvania firm sued the advisory board, the new architects, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the American Battle Monuments Commission for breach of contract and for tampering with the original design work. By this time it was 1991: a full five years since the plan to build the memorial was approved, seven years since it was first proposed, and 36 years since the Korean War ended- and the fighting wasn’t over yet!

The new architects weren’t having any more luck than the original firm in receiving approval for their design. This time, resistance came from the Commission of Fine Arts, one of three reviewing bodies that had to sign off on the design before construction could commence. The CFA rejected at least four designs, calling them “unfocused” and”overwhelming.”

A year later, in 1992, a design was approved and ground was broken for the memorial, southwest of the Lincoln Memorial and not far from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Construction was completed in three years; on July 17, 1995, the 42nd anniversary of the Korean war armistice, the memorial was dedicated in a ceremony led by U.S. president Bill Clinton and South Korean president Kim Young Sam.

Yet even then the trouble persisted. A year after the memorial was dedicated, its paving stones began sinking into the ground, the 40 trees surrounding the reflecting pool died and were removed, and the pool itself became clogged with leaves and had to be drained. Repairs cost several millions dollars, on top of the $18 million in private funds that had been spent on construction. Once again, the Korean War vets seemed in danger of being forgotten- or at least being given short shrift by American history.


By the time of the armistice’s 50th anniversary in 2003 (nearly 20 years since the committee started forming to propose the memorial), the Korean War Veterans Memorial had been repaired and restored.

(Image credit: Flickr user Andrea Weckerle)

The memorial comprises three distinct elements. First there are the 19 statues of soldiers on patrol- 15 Army, two Marines, and one each of the Navy and Air Force. They stand more than seven feet tall and were sculpted by Vermont artist Frank Gaylord, a World War II veteran. Their faces, which show the exhaustion and determination of a tested combat patrol, are reflected in the granite mural wall.

(Image credit: Flickr user Wally Gobetz)

Etched into the surface of the wall, the second principle element of the memorial, is a mural of some 2,400 images taken from photographs and representing all branches of the service and a variety of jobs and assignments- pilots, corpsmen, combat troops, medical personnel, chaplains, landing forces, and even the canine corps. From a distance, the etchings are thought to resemble the mountainous landscape of Korea, and the reflected faces of the statues brings the total number of soldiers represented “on patrol” to 38 -symbolic of the 38th parallel, where most of the fighting in Korea took place. Beside the wall are plantings of hibiscus, Korea’s national flower.

The third element of the memorial is a reflecting pool engraved with the words “Freedom is not free.” And nearby, an even more apt inscription: "Our nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met."

(Image credit: Booradleyp)

An honor roll of the names of all military personnel who were killed during the Korean War is kept in a nearby kiosk, where visitors can search for the names of family members, friends, and loved ones.

At long last, there is a fitting tribute to those who fought and died in Korea, and who, as Korea vet Angus Deming wrote in Newsweek at the time of the memorial’s dedication, "never understood how the Korean War could have been ‘forgotten’ in the first place."


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Salutes the Armed Forces.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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I'd wish all war memorials would also inform about all the losses of the respective enemy side.
Otherwise the "war memorials" seem just to be "warrior memorials"...
The referrence to the killed in action of the other UN nations is a first step in this direction...
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It's relative. They are in our history books, but in schools both are given little notice compared to the Revolution, the Civil War, and the two World Wars, at least in American history classes. My American history education stopped at World War II, and one year WWII was all we studied. Because the teachers' husbands served in it.
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