As a young man, Bobby Wilson served as a rifleman in the Korean War.
He spent much of that time on the front lines, except when he got hit in the legs by shrapnel.
“I got hit and spent 39 days in the hospital, then went right back up on the line,” Wilson, 81, said. “I stayed there until it was over with. I was on the line the night they signed the truce.”
That was more than 60 years ago, and his experiences never really left him.
“You don’t ever forget it,” he said. “The memories are on you all the time. Any little thing can trigger one.”
The old memories aren’t going anywhere, but he has new memories to add to them.
The South Korean government regularly invites veterans to visit the country. The offer includes all accommodations for free and 50 percent off air fare for the veteran and 30 percent off for a companion.
Wilson and his son, David Wilson, accepted the invitation in September, and got to see a modern country that honors its past.
“I know they showed us the best of the best, but it was very impressive,” David Wilson said. “And they were very appreciative of what my dad’s generation did.”
“They made it nice,” Wilson added. “They arranged everything.”
On the DMZ
During the war, Wilson spent much of his time “on the line” in what’s now considered North Korea. He wasn’t able to revisit those battlefields, but he was one of the few Westerners allowed to visit North Korea.
A building in the Demilitarized Zone sits in both South and North Korea.
“The South uses one entrance and the North uses the other,” Wilson said. “That was where the truce was signed. It’s just like it was 60 years ago. The desk is still there where they signed the truce.”
While Wilson and his son were in the room, the door to North Korea was locked.
“They have had North Korean soldiers reach in and pull people out and say, ‘You’re spying on our country,’” David Wilson said.
While they visited the room and walked all of 10 yards into North Korea, soldiers from the north glared at them and took pictures through a window.
“They were trying to provoke you,” David Wilson said. “They were looking for an excuse to start a fight.”
“They wanted to intimidate you,” Wilson said, adding that he didn’t feel scared, but it was the only time during the week-long stay when he felt uneasy.
They kept busy with different activities scheduled for each day.
The South Korean military staged a reenactment of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s landing at Inchon that featured three destroyers and three submarines, as well as helicopters, landing vehicles, paratroopers and more.
“It wasn’t historically accurate because they used modern equipment,” David Wilson said.
“It was something,” Wilson said. “I imagine it cost them $10 million to pull it off.”
They visited the Korean War Museum and the country’s equivalent of Arlington National Cemetery. All of the NATO troops who died in the Korean War are listed, including a plaque dedicated to Mississippians who lost their lives.
“They’re very respectful of what was done for them,” Wilson said.
During their visit, the Wilsons also sampled civilian life. They tried on native clothes, and caught an opera.
“It was so well-choreographed,” David Wilson said. “Even though you didn’t understand the language, you knew exactly what was going on.”
There wasn’t really a language barrier.
“Most of them spoke very good English,” David Wilson said. “They sounded like they were raised in the United States, and a lot of them went to school in the U.S.”
One day, they visited a school where kids sang and performed drum routines. This was among the most impressive events because the kids were so well-coached.
“It was so amazingly done,” David Wilson said. “It was like they were professionals.”
“They have a great drive to succeed,” Wilson added.
If pressed to mention a negative about the trip, it would have to be the drivers.
“They don’t put on their brakes,” David Wilson said. “They honk their horns, and you better run.”
The visit was a chance for South Korea to thank Wilson and others for their service, but it also was a chance to show off.
When Wilson was in Korea in the 1950s, he never saw a town that could rival Tupelo in size. It was a battle-scarred, agrarian country with few multi-story buildings.
Some 60 years later, Seoul is a thriving city of 16 million people.
“It’s far more modern than Tupelo,” Wilson said, “and everybody lives in these large apartment buildings.”
After the war, South Korea was an aid recipient. Its citizens worked hard over the years to become a donor nation.
“They are one of the few countries that paid back their debt to the United States,” David Wilson said.
Nothing will erase Bobby Wilson’s hard-fought memories from his first visit to Korea, but now he has a different picture of the country. He’s seen what his sacrifice and the sacrifices of others have made possible.
“It was a great trip,” he said. “I would recommend it to anybody.”