Korean veterans recall acts of bravery as teens
Stars and Stripes June 25, 2007
SEOUL — They fought with bamboo sticks and farm tools, spied on communists and sneaked food to guerrilla fighters hiding on their rural island.
They ambushed grown men armed with rifles, then tied them up and stole their weapons.
In all, this makeshift unit of teenage boys on Ganghwa Island, about 30 miles northwest of Seoul, killed or captured 70 North Koreans and saved nine American soldiers during the Korean War.
Most were between 12 and 16 when the war began on June 25, 1950 — 57 years ago today. They were too young to enlist in the South Korean army, but old enough to defend Ganghwa after most of the able-bodied men left to fight on the mainland.
“I was too young to be scared,” said Lee Yong Hwan, one of 88 members of the Ganghwa Teenage Mobile Forces Unit who toured K-16 Air Base on Friday.
Lee, who was 15 when the war began, remembers hearing a crash one day and then watching Americans parachute to the ground from their downed B-29 bomber. When he found them, disoriented but alive, they tried to hide, but he watched over them until an American rescue squad arrived.
“They weren’t sure if we were North Koreans or South Koreans,” he said.
Lt. Col. Tom Climer, commander of the 2nd Aviation Battalion, 2nd Aviation Regiment, invited the men, most now in their 70s, after learning of them through the Korean uncle of a soldier under his command.
“People who are willing to rescue a crewman, we’re all about that,” he said. “Right now, most of my forces have combat patches from Iraq and Afghanistan, so we’re able to understand what they went through.”
Today, Ganghwa Island belongs to South Korea. But it’s close enough to see the shoreline of the communist north. The South Korean army abandoned the island after the war began because it was next door to North Korea, but a group of fighters in their 20s and 30s organized to defend Ganghwa about a month later.
The teenagers helped them by bringing them food and spying on the North Koreans — a dangerous job on an island where there were plenty of communist sympathizers.
“There was no one left to defend the island,” said Kim Seoun-Heung. Age 12 at the time he fought, not because he opposed communism, but because he didn’t want to see his family and friends killed.
Now a law professor at Anyang University, he said the North Koreans tried to get peasants to become communists, and tortured or killed those who wouldn’t.
Moon Yoo-bu was 12 when the North Koreans invaded the island at 3 a.m. one morning just days after the war began. His older brother and father left to fight on the mainland, and as the war progressed, the teenage fighters had little food and few weapons. Still, they jumped on better-armed North Korean soldiers, tied them up and took their weapons.
Ginger Cofer, whose husband is a member of the aviation battalion at K-16, began crying as she listened to one of the Korean veterans talk about the war over lunch at the base.
“I thought, I’m sitting here around some of the most courageous men I’m ever going to meet,” she said. “I actually felt in awe being in their presence. It’s a courage I can’t even imagine.”