Berger’s Burg: This time, let’s remember the forgotten vets

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With a little luck, there might be a footnote about the Korean, or “Forgotten,” War.

To be...

By Alex Berger

On May 28, our nation will observe Memorial Day. And, as usual, the media will write volumes about our fallen veterans of World War II, Vietnam, and the Gulf War.

With a little luck, there might be a footnote about the Korean, or “Forgotten,” War.

To be forgotten, according to my trusty thesaurus, means to be overlooked, ignored, disregarded, neglected, omitted, or slighted — it is indeed a most unfair description of the Korean War.

It is, of course, perfectly correct that the media write about the fallen heroes of the other wars. They all are deserving of America's remembrance and pride. But it irks me that on Veterans’ Day, a date set aside each year to honor ALL our fallen war veterans, I have a difficult time finding anything written about the war that had been deemed a “police action" that occurred between World War II and the Vietnam War.

In this “police action,” our ground combat troops came under constant enemy fire for 37 tortuous months. Our soldiers faced more enemy forces during that time period than in any other unbroken series of campaigns we fought in the 20th century. Some 6,807,000 men and women participated — 55,000 of them died, 117 others were missing in action, and 7,140 became prisoners of war. About 4,600 veterans still survive (including a then 17-year-old who is now your TimesLedger columnist). And this “police action” lasted from June 27, 1950 through Jan. 31, 1955 (although a cease-fire was officially declared in July 1953).

Too few Americans are aware of the history of this particular conflict. In 1950, Communist forces from North Korea suddenly and without warning, sent their massive army crashing into South Korea — their aim was to annex the Western-backed country. The fledging United Nations, then located in Flushing Corona Meadows Park, condemned this naked act of aggression and made the decision to take “police action.” The world body approved the sending of allied military forces to Korea to oppose the invasion. Of course, the United States bore the brunt of this mandate and sent the largest contingent of troops there.

Our army was smaller in number than the enemy’s, and most of the soldiers had never been tested in battle before. Nevertheless, the Americans courageously faced the significantly larger and more experienced force of North Korea, which was soon reinforced by the huge Chinese army.

After a bitter seesaw struggle, the U.S.-U.N. forces prevailed and prevented a communist takeover of South Korea. Incidentally, I lost a childhood friend, 17-year-old Johnny Marchese among others, in one of the cruel battles.

How then was it possible that our heroic stand in Korea, which achieved its basic military objective (unlike in Vietnam), failed to be recognized for the major war that it was? Col. William E. Weber (retired) says there are many reasons; one of the most important was that the war occurred very soon after World War II. Since the entire nation was not called upon to fight as was necessary in WWII, America chose to ignore it. And, unlike Vietnam, he adds, it was not a war portrayed on television. And it certainly was not controversial.

Another factor, Weber says, was the reality that the Korean war veterans themselves were anxious to get on with their lives. They were content to get lost in the population and never sought an ombudsman to tell their story. Incredibly, many history textbooks relegated Korea to a “five-paragraph” war.

But changes are finally a-coming. On July 27, 1995, a long over-due event took place in Washington. It was the official dedication of a Korean War Memorial. The “Wall of Remembrance” has images of the Korean War veterans etched into it. A reflecting pool sits in front of the wall, very appropriate for those observers who want to ponder and reflect. A cluster of statues of the war-weary soldiers complements the scene.

A computerized Honor Roll screen is also available for public viewing. It illustrates the basic biographies of many of the soldiers killed in action, with their picture, date of birth, and other personal particulars. Many of the deceased were TEENAGERS. Inscribed, before the imposing stone statues, is this telling notation: “Our nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.”

Presently, the Korean War Veterans Memorial has become one of the most visited and popular tourist attractions in the national Capital and the nearby streets are usually clogged with tourist buses. It is a well-deserved honor to see.

So, on this Memorial Day, let’s remember the sacrifices of ALL our fallen war veterans who died for the freedoms that we enjoy today. And as many others of us who were in that 1950s conflict will do on Memorial Day, I will wear my Korean War Veteran shirt proudly for all to see. Who knows? Perhaps in time, the Korean War will no longer be a “Forgotten War.” Our gallant sons and daughters who fought and died there deserve no less.

Postscript - Although many Korean War veterans in New York city and state jobs previously served many months in the military, their service time was not allowed to be credited to their pensionable time, as is done with federal employees. Over the years, many people have unsuccessfully tried to correct this unfair omission.

Last year, Governor Pataki finally signed into law a Veterans Service Credit Law (the “veterans buy-back bill),’ which allows veterans who are, or were, New York state or city employees to get retirement credit for their military service. All well and good, but the new law applies only to veterans still actively on the job, or those who retired after 1996. This virtually rules out all of the Korean War vets, who obviously retired, or changed jobs, before 1996. These veterans, who defended our country in time of war, are forgotten once again. It is ironic that the new legislation will reward the buy-back provision to many peace-time veterans who never went to war, and slights those who did.

I wrote a letter of protest to the governor which was answered by one Jeffrey P. Swain, the state deputy comptroller. In it, he states that since my proposal to include the Korean War veterans in the new legislation would only benefit “a small subset of the retiree population,” it is not worthy of passage. Hmmm! I promptly sent a second letter: “Dear Honorable Deputy Comptroller, This ‘small subset of the retiree population’ that you so glibly refer to, are former state and city employees who fought for our country in time of WAR ! Granting the benefits to peacetime veterans is admirable, but shouldn’t war veterans deserve the same consideration? I am still waiting for a response.”

I also contacted my two state legislators. But, alas and alack, I am still waiting for their responses as well.

Readers, don’t you think the Korean War veterans earned and should receive the same pension benefits as will be granted to the peacetime veterans? I think so and I hope that you do, too.

Reach columnist Alex Berger by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 139

Posted 7:07 pm, October 10, 2011
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