Korean War Vets Return To The Scene Of Battle

Friday marked the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. In Seoul this weekend, it is being commemorated by veterans from more 15 nations that were part of the U.S.-led United Nations Command that defended South Korea. For many veterans, it's their first visit back since the war.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Six decades ago this week, communist forces from North Korea attacked South Korea and started a civil war that would last three years and kill nearly three million people.

The United States led a hastily assembled United Nations force that defended the South. Veterans from at least 15 nations have gathered in Seoul to commemorate that war.

Doualy Xaykaothao reports.

(Soundbite of drums)

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: It's been a busy week of pageantry from Seoul to the port city of Pusan. At a commemoration earlier this week on the Eighth U.S. Army Base, the American ambassador, Kathleen Stephens, said South Korea is no longer a country that Americans know little about.

Ambassador KATHLEEN STEPHENS (U.S. Ambassador to South Korea): And Koreans are no longer a people we never met. Our relationship is broad and deep. We share so much.

XAYKAOTHAO: The ambassador said South Korea has become a prosperous democracy. But she also said the work here on the Korean Peninsula will remain unfinished until all of the people Korea live together free and at peace.

That's what 80-year-old New Yorker Thomas Nuzzo(ph) hopes for too. He served as an infantry soldier in the last year of the Korean War.

Mr. THOMAS NUZZO (Korean War Veteran): Try to imagine a city kid from Manhattan, young, transposed to Korea. I mean, and I'm talking about not this Korea, the old Korea. To me it was fascinating. I just ate it up.

XAYKAOTHAO: After the war ended, he liked to leave his camp and snap photos of the Korean people and often returned to one village in particular, where he struck up a friendship with a young Korean woman.

Mr. NUZZO: And because I kept going, little by little, hello, hello (unintelligible) we met. You know, in the Army, you dont know when youre going to move around. When I was told, okay, Nuzzo, the day after tomorrow youre going, was a very sad time. And she gave me a little package. I put it in my duffle bag. And a month later, when I got home, I opened it. What do you think she gave me to remember her? It's called chogori. It's the little jacket that they have, very short with billowing leaves. She gave me the one that I took her last picture.

XAYKAOTHAO: Eighty-year-old Thai Helli(ph) was born in Xizang, South Korea, then joined U.S. forces as an intelligence officer during the war.

Mr. THAI HELLI (Former Intelligence Officer): I was working there, you know, guarding the DMZ area, and we had very, very heavy fighting over there. But today, in the 60 years later, we're just peaceful. But as a professional, you know, soldier, I can see anything could happen any time.

Mr. DOUG FARGO (Korean War Veteran): I am Doug Fargo and I am a veteran, an infantryman and an infantry officer in World War II and Korea. And I came to Korean in October or November of 1951 and commanded an infantry unit. I met my unit on Heartbreak Ridge. I only lost three.

XAYKAOTHAO: Australians John Dusson(ph) and Max Gant(ph) are touring the war memorial in Seoul as children play on the grounds. Both served in the Korean War. During a brief stop, Gant let it be known that he just turned 83.

Mr. MAX GANT (Korean War Veteran): Eighty-three today.

Mr. JOHN DUSSON (Korean War Veteran): Happy Birthday.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GANT: I never mention it.

XAYKAOTHAO: Dusson served in the 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment and Gant served with Australia's Sea Furies and Fireflies aircraft carrier.

Mr. DUSSON: I think that it is fantastic to be able to come back here and see this lovely country the way that it is now as compared with what it was during the Korean War.

Mr. GANT: Here it was all rubble. (Unintelligible) Yanks (unintelligible) bastard (unintelligible) and they went back the other way and they (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of children playing)

XAYKAOTHAO: South Korean veteran Woon Doon Suk(ph) was conscripted into the Korean War at the age of 17.

Mr. WOON DOON SUK (Korean War Veteran): (Through translator) I cannot even bring myself to think of those desperate times. Honestly, I'm amazed that the Korean people were able to stand against a North Korean army with the weak weapons we had at the time. If not for the United Nations command, South Korea would've been defeated for sure.

XAYKAOTHAO: An estimated 40,000 troops from the U.N. command died on the Korean Peninsula, most of them Americans.

For NPR News, I'm Doualy Xaykaothao in Seoul.

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