On Watch August 2013
By Marcus Fisk
The Korean War ended 60 years ago this past July. The Korean ‘Conflict’ as it was called then didn’t seem like a conflict to the 314,000 men and women who fought there from June 1950 – July 1953. To them it was a no-holds-barred, all-out, bonafide ‘war’ with some 33,000 killed in action and upwards of 8,000 missing in action. ‘Conflict’ my @%*$@#%%……
Many of the men and women who served in the Korean War are in their 80s now if they are still alive. My father served during the Korean War. Like many of his contemporaries who attended Officer Candidate School during that time, the bulk of them were trained as Infantry Officers, slated for a quick turn-around, and dutifully headed off to Korea. Back then however, they were young, strapping, energetic soon-to-be Second Lieutenants who had the world by the horns.
Dad remembers fondly his OCS buddies much the way one remembers his fraternity brothers. Barney Gill was from Norfolk, Virginia where he was a star athlete, having scored the 1st touchdown in the Oyster Bowl. Gill had a terrific sense of humor and was known for his ability to wiggle his way out of trouble. Another legendary OCS buddy was Boston native Bill McSweeny who according to Dad had a Sunday ritual of attending Mass in the morning, enjoying a steak and eggs breakfast at the Officer’s Club, and then he would set off with the Daily Racing Form under his arm to the track. Both of these fine gentlemen went off to Korea and distinguished themselves in combat. Gill later served two tours in Vietnam with the 82nd Airborne Division and retired as a colonel. McSweeny who became a journalist with the Hearst organization also served as a Special Envoy for Presidents of both parties, was a trustee on numerous boards in the Washington DC area, and was Chairman for the Korean War Memorial.
Despite the march of years however, not much has changed over the course of six decades. Dad and his contemporaries from the ‘Forgotten War’ are moving slower and their ranks are thinning in the same unfortunate fashion that the ‘Greatest Generation’ of WWII veterans started to fade at the outset of this Century. The Armistice in July 1953 supposedly ended hostilities between the two Koreas leaving an enterprising South Korea that currently enjoys an economic boom rivaling the economies of Asia and North Korea, a nationalist anachronism barely surviving on life-support.
North Korea’s national behavior hasn’t changed over the years. Just when it appears that the patient is flatlined, North Korea sends soldiers over the border with axes and kills two American officers in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in 1976, captures a U.S. Intelligence Ship (the USS PUEBLO) in 1968, sinks a South Korean Navy ship (The CHEONAN) killing 47 in 2010, or fires an inter-continental missile as a threat to the U.S. (2012). This erratic behavior usually is met with a stern admonishment by the international community and then North Korea complains, issues threats, and then quietly disappears until the next incident.
Despite the best efforts to present itself as a world leader, North Korea is trapped in yesterday. The father-to-son-to-son progression of ‘Supreme Leader’ Kim il Sung to Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un, or whom I affectionately call President ‘Pick-a-Kim’, is yet another indicator of just how mired down North Korea is in its past.
After his first subterranean year as Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un started the characteristic saber-rattling of a new guy attempting to establish himself as the baddest-ass-on-the-block. Then when that didn’t work he sent out peace feelers to the U.S.
One such icebreaker was allowing retired Navy Captain Thomas Hudner Jr. to come to North Korea. Hudner’s mission was simple. He wanted to return to Korea where sixty years earlier he attempted to save the life of a fellow Naval aviator — Ensign Jesse L. Brown — the Navy’s first African American Aviator. On that cold November day in 1950 Brown and Hudner were part of a six-aircraft fight off the carrier USS LEYTE flying close air support for the Marines trapped at the infamous Chosin Reservoir. During the mission Brown’s aircraft was hit with small arms fire and crashed, trapping Brown in his cockpit. Hudner seeing North Korean troops headed toward Brown’s aircraft crash-landed his own aircraft and with the assistance of a pilot from a rescue helicopter worked with an axe and a fire extinguisher to extricate Brown from his burning plane. Brown, realizing that darkness was coming on and they would not be able to get him out told Hudner to leave. He added, “If anything happens to me, tell my wife Daisy I love her.” Brown died shortly after.
Sixty years later Tom Hudner got the approval to return to North Korea with the intention of bringing the remains of his shipmate and friend Jesse L. Brown back home. He and
Dick Bonelli, a Marine veteran of the Chosin Reservoir battle, planned to travel to the crash site in July. Their visit coincided with the North Korean celebration of their ‘victory’ over the U.N. forces and when Hudner and Bonelli asked about the trip to the crash site, their North Korean handler said that it was rainy season and daily downpours washed out roads making travel to that part of Korea impossible. They were invited however to participate in the festivities taking place including a visit to the captured USS PUEBLO. Hudner and Bonelli passed on the opportunity and returned empty-handed.
Jesse L. Brown is still in Korea. If it weren’t for men like Hudner, Bonelli, Gill, McSweeny and their generation, Brown would be yet another casualty of the still ‘Forgotten War.’
Marcus Fisk is a retired Navy Captain, Naval Academy graduate, sometime actor, sculptor, pick-up soccer player, and playwright. He and his wife Pamela now live in Connecticut.