Korean War veterans from Alabama returning to the country they defended
The Decatur Daily, Ala.
DECATUR, Ala. — Even memories of war fade over six decades, but some never die.
Air Force Staff Sgt. James A. Anders recalls driving a “deuce and a half” from his Suwon airbase to Seoul, South Korea, during the winter of 1952, and hanging a left toward Inchon, the port on the Yellow Sea known for Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s invasion two years earlier.
“We picked up food supplies at the port,” the 79-year-old Decatur resident said of the cargo truck that often carried soldiers as well as supplies in its covered bed. “As the crow flies, we were four miles apart.
But we drove 23 miles because of the roads we had to take.
Streets in Seoul at that time were nothing but bomb holes, and buildings had no windows and no doors.”
Anders and 10 other area Korean War veterans will revisit the land they fought to defend next month in a trip sponsored by the Legacy 4 Korean War Veterans Foundation of Huntsville and the South Korean government.
K.C. Bertling, a South Korean native working at Redstone Arsenal, and her husband, Sam, launched the Korean War Veterans Foundation in January 2011.
It is an off-shoot of a program called Korea Revisit, started by the Korean Veterans Association in Seoul in 1975.
“We’re the only organization in the world sending veterans as a group to a country they helped defend,” K.C. Bertling said. “We want to honor the Korean War veterans for what they did during the war and after the war.”
Bertling said she calls her foundation Legacy 4 because she wants to reach the four corners of the world with the project.
Army Cpl. Larry Sepanski, 80, of Trinity, is going. He remembers a country ripped apart and camping in the mountains in northeastern North Korea during the signing of a 1953 armistice.
“We always saw flashes and the booms of exploding weapons, noise from the artillery,” he said. “The armistice was signed at 10 a.m., to take effect 12 hours later. At 10 p.m. that night, everything went eerily quiet. I had never heard such silence.”
Most vivid in the mind of Army Sgt. 1st Class Bill Richardson, of Athens, 84, was “looking out across entire villages in South Korea in 1951 and seeing anything taller than 18 inches burning. The residents’ huts made of thatched roofs and mud stucco were no match for artillery coming in at different times from both sides.”
Richardson said such scenes became routine as he moved from place to place, helping build roads and bridges.
The veterans leave Huntsville Airport starting at 4 a.m. Nov. 8 before they board a Delta Airlines flight.
The Army Materiel Command Band from Redstone will perform and Gen. Richard Formica will speak.
“Delta is providing all of the passengers on the flight, probably about 100 people, with breakfast,” Faye McWhorter of Elite Travel said. She and her husband, Roger, who is assisting Bertling with arrangements, will make the trip.
When the veterans return home Nov. 14, Faye McWhorter said their plane will get a water cannon salute, believed to be the first ever done in Huntsville.
The veterans’ six days in Korea will be filled with activities, including luncheons and banquets.
They will attend a wreath-laying ceremony at the National Cemetery in Seoul before traveling by a “bullet train” to Pusan, an 800-mile ride to the country’s southeastern coast that will take only four hours.
In Pusan, they will attend a program at the United Nations Cemetery, meeting with Korean War veterans from other countries.
That evening, each veteran will receive an Ambassador for Peace Medal.
On their last full day in the country, they will visit the Korean War Memorial and the demilitarized zone at Panmunjom. The DMZ lies along the 38th parallel, where the armistice was signed.
“I’ve been wanting to return to Seoul for years, to see how things are now,” Anders said. “I know I will notice tremendous changes from when I was there.”
Shortly after he graduated at Morgan County High School in Hartselle, now Hartselle High, in 1950, Anders volunteered for the Air Force.
At Suwon when the armistice was signed, he was with the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing, which flew F-86 and F-94 jets. He left Korea on Dec. 31, 1953.
The Army drafted Sepanski, a Chicago resident, in October 1952. He arrived at Inchon on a troopship in April 1953. He was assigned as a radioman to the 1343rd Engineer Combat Battalion, 1169th Group, X Corp, Eighth Army.
Sepanski retired to Trinity from Chicago in 1994 and joined the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4190 in Decatur.
“While I was on a funeral detail, I learned that the 1343rd was a National Guard unit from Decatur,” he said. “I learned that after all those decades.”
Sepanski said he wasn’t too excited about returning to Korea until he became more involved with the project.
“Now I’m pumped up,” he said. “I want to see how the South Koreans have used the freedom the United Nations fought to preserve for them. I know that I will not recognize any of the places from the war, but I want to see for myself the modern cities they have rebuilt out of the ruins I remember.”
Richardson lived in Oak Ridge, Tenn., when the Korean War broke out June 25, 1950, and was a member of the 194th Combat Engineer Battalion, a National Guard unit.
“We were called up for duty in Korea in January 1951, at the same time the units in Decatur and Athens were mobilized,” Richardson said.
In addition to the memory of watching villages burn in an area that stretched for several miles, in “a kind of no man’s land,” Richardson said something else he will never forget is how tired he was after constant work building roads and bridges.
“On this return trip, I know I won’t recognize the Korea I left in January 1952,” he said. “But I know I will marvel at what I see, like a phoenix that has risen from the ashes.”
Richardson also believes the trip will represent a closure for him. A closure of his war memories.