Korean War essay winner: A nation rebuilds itself
Published: July 27, 2012
To mark the 59th anniversary of the armistice that halted the Korean War, the Korea Health Industry Development Institute, a South Korean government agency, recently partnered with the Korean War Veterans Association to hold an essay contest for American veterans of the conflict and their relatives.
On Friday evening, two winners — former Marine Corps 1st Lt. Joseph C. Tirrell and Karen L. Healy, daughter of former Army Master Sgt. Jason Walker Bowling — will be recognized at a banquet in Arlington, Va. In September, they and their guest will travel to South Korea to tour the nation that has emerged from that war.
Below is Tirrell’s essay on a nation rebuilding itself. Healy’s essay on a daughter tracing her father’s footsteps can be found here.
Former Marine Corps 1st Lt. Joseph C. Tirrell:
The long trek to Korea was not a rehearsed project. Each step was of uncertain movement and in my case I was on crutches with a severely damaged ankle. After badgering my Company Commander and convincing him I would be healed by the time I got there, my orders were changed to fly me to Korea. This was the most magical trip that I have ever been on in my life. It went from Quantico VA to San Francisco to Honolulu, then on to Johnston Island, Guam, Kwajalein, Japan and finally Korea. I had never been this far away from home before this trip.
A completely wet behind the ears Marine was on his way to help the Korean people regain their country. Of course all of the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force men and women before me had laid the great ground work that enabled Korea to recover. The military struggle of the beginning of the Korean War, June 25, 1950, was difficult and did not look promising, the country was burning to ashes. The country was literally overrun by the enemy from the north. We Americans were not ready to do this but many troops came and fight they did.
I landed at the airfield and was taken by truck to Ascom City, a supply depot where all of our belongings would be stored for the duration. Then it was on to the trucks again and up to the duty station. Looking over the land, cover and concealment were on my mind as that was drilled into our heads in infantry school. The land was hilly there were no trees or shrubs to hide behind. Roads outside of the City of Seoul were not paved and they were very narrow, one vehicle wide. I never saw a building with a roof on it. We were near the University of Seoul and none of the buildings were in condition to hold classes.
The women were tending to the children and the young and the old were tending to the farms. The rice fields had to be taken care of. We had to find places for cover and considering the vast devastation of the land, homes, buildings, bridges and roads, I could see that this was not going to be an easy task. Looking up toward the high country you could see railroad cars dangling off the side of the mountain, still clinging to each other, blown off of the tracks in shear violence. Every thing here was destroyed.
This did not seem to deter the need to rebuild even if that rebuilding were to be temporary. Every one was busy doing their tasks rebuilding what was destroyed and doing farming chores and all the while trying to earn money so life could be somewhat easier. The U.S. Military employed many of the local people to help facilitate tasks. The Koreans were highly industrious and they were cooperative with Americans in getting the job done. Many worked alongside of our troops allowing other troops do more military types of work.
Housekeeping had to be done, men had to be fed and injuries had to be taken care of. The whole place, military and civilian, was like a city of gigantic effort thrusting back and forth always moving. The local people did our laundry and we paid them with the script that was issued to us as money. Nickels were paper money. Some few had greenbacks but most were paid in this script. We paid a young man, his name as I recall was Kim Cum Sic, a dollar fifty per week for all of our laundry. He was as industrious as anyone I had ever met including my brother, a China Marine of the Old Breed in WWII who knew how to make a buck quickly.
Food was of a major concern for everyone. Getting food was no easy feat. We thought about it and so did the Koreans. We could see this in their demeanor and their need to be assured by us that all would be well. The civilians were always looking for food and for work. You could tell that they were ambitious but we did not then see that their ambition was endless. They pursued work with a passion, they wanted to succeed, and they worked for success. I fell for these people in a way that is hard to explain.
The language set us apart but the human need joined us together in a bond that would never be forgotten by them or us. Our medical personnel took care of injured civilians and their children, the sharing of supplies and materials impressed upon me the need to be kind and to be human in all aspects of life. Stopping to help and seeing to the needs of anyone less off than you became the focus. I was a trucker and in my trips north and south I saw a lot of the industriousness of the farmers working at the rice fields. I saw a woman give birth at the side of the road. Several Marines stopped to help and before we knew it she was with baby back in the field working as if nothing had occurred.
Our unit was moved above the Injim River. My contact with civilians became less but I have never forgotten the mark made by them upon my soul. They are good people, they are kind people and they want the very same things in living that we want. I noted that given the tools or not, the will to succeed was there in spades. We ran our trucks every day working to bring food, water and ammunition to the front line troops. I am in awe of our troops and I shall never underestimate the effort and their willingness to sacrifice their all to do what had to be done. They sat on those hills and in those bunkers weeks on end, protecting the terrain recaptured in gruesome fighting. We drove endless hours to support them.
In the end we had orders to do the body exchange. We were to return the North Korean and Chinese bodies in exchange for the American bodies. A nightmare of a job completed in three weeks of around the clock operations. Then we received orders to go home. The entire First Marine Division was to going to California. Oh blessed day we thought, but we never at that point realized that Korea would come home with us. There was something churning between us, between the Americans and the Koreans. Respect; respect for hard work and common effort. We would forever and ever be a friend to those people and we would never forget the things we did there.
The seminal seed of a better life and industry was impregnated in those war years. Impregnated by those who fought side by side against the enemies and by those who yearned for peace for a country that had suffered through out history by the might of outside military forces, and was now divided by bordering countries that had been adversaries in previous times. That impregnation gave the people of the Republic of Korea ample incentive to build a nation that would be a monument to those whose lives were lost in the effort, whose injuries would sometimes last a soldier or sailor’s s entire remaining life, and to those who trekked across half of the world to serve.
As my tour of duty ended I thought to myself many times the Korean people are of a peaceful nature, loving and caring and wanting to make a better place for themselves and their children. I looked back at Korea from the USS Meigs, the ship that was to take us to California after several years away from home. I thought about the few I knew back on the mainland of Korea and wished them and the entire people well. What happened in Korea happened elsewhere as well but here I knew that given time, Korea would rise above the ashes and pronounce itself as an equal both in friendship and in industry. And then the motion of life took me to marriage and on to the years following the conflict.
By 1988 I had 5 children, a son who passed away at age 28, a daughter who was 29 years of age, and my youngest daughter was already 20. During that summer watching the Olympics on TV to my utter and astounding surprise, I saw the sweep of the TV over the land of Korea and I thought that I had passed into a dream. The skyscrapers, the highways, the buildings, the massive beautiful land of Korea had sprung to life. Those buildings that I had seen years before with no roofs and smashed to smithereens were reborn into magnificent structures each and every one of them a tribute to the lives lost, the suffering endured and a reminder of the comfort these buildings provide against the bitter, bitter cold of a Korean winter.
Some 8,400 athletes competed in Korea in the Olympics. They shared in the victory of the Korean People and of our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. They shared their talents in a peaceful and meaningful way, a tribute again to those who laid that seminal seed of an enduring legacy. The war we fought has provided an enduring democracy and freedom along with world class industry the likes of which the world has never seen. It was an honor to serve; it is an honor to be a part of this enduring legacy of the Korean War.
June 25, 2000 brought to each veteran a letter of appreciation from the President of the Republic of Korea, Kim Dae-jung. “On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean war… I would like to offer my deepest gratitude … We Koreans hold dear in our hearts the conviction, courage and spirit of sacrifice shown by such selfless friends as you, who enabled us to remain a free democratic nation.” These are the gracious words of a thankful nation who have in their gratitude woven the golden thread of an enduring legacy which bonds us together forever.