‘Christmas in July’: Visiting vets recall the Korean War and the armistice that ended it
By MATTHEW KEELER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 28, 2019
Note: This article has been corrected.
SEOUL, South Korea — Dozens of Korean War veterans, including 17 Americans, returned to the divided peninsula to commemorate the 66th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended the fighting between the U.S.-backed South and its communist rivals in the North.
Dick Munson, 87, who was visiting South Korea from Ely, Nev., recalled learning about the armistice while he was at his post called, Christmas Hill, near the front lines, on July 27, 1953.
“I was thinking about the anniversary of the signing of the armistice and excited to be here for that,” he said in an interview before a ceremony Saturday in Seoul. “Those of us serving up there called it Christmas in July.”
South Korea’s Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs hosted Munson and more than 100 other veterans and family members from 16 nations to express the South’s appreciation for the sacrifices made during the three-year war.
During the six-day revisit program that began Tuesday, the vets participated in numerous cultural events and tours, including a trip to the truce village of Panmunjom and other sites in the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone.
They also laid white flowers on the headstones of fallen servicemembers at the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in the southern city of Busan.
They were welcomed with a standing ovation and honored during the annual United Nations Forces participation day ceremony in Seoul, which was broadcast on national TV.
That event was also attended by South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon, the commander of United Nations Command and U.S. Forces Korea Gen. Robert Abrams and Eighth Army commander Lt. Gen. Michael Bills.
“These brave soldiers endured combat, which often had them outnumbered and under-equipped. Still they resisted, driven by the will to protect the freedoms that we all cherish,” Abrams said in opening remarks. “They faced the toughest imaginable conditions — freezing winters, sweltering summers and unforgiving terrain.”
Eighteen countries, including the United States and South Korea, joined the war under the umbrella of the U.S.-led United Nations Command after North Korea invaded the South on June 25, 1950.
Hostilities ceased when the armistice was signed in Panmunjom by a U.S. general representing the UNC and a North Korean general representing his country and its ally China. But the nations remain technically at war to this day since they failed to agree on a peace treaty.
The UNC also held a ceremony at the Joint Security Area in the DMZ that divides the peninsula.
‘Coming back is closure’
The 17 American veterans who made the trip had varying motives for joining the Cold War conflict, which is often known as the Forgotten War because it was sandwiched between World War II and Vietnam.
Many simply didn’t have a choice, while others passed up life-changing opportunities to heed the call to go to war.
Munson was drafted at age 19 and served the last 10 months of the war as an infantryman with both the 45th and 2nd Infantry Divisions.
“Coming back is closure,” he said.
“It is so good to come back and see the progress of this wonderful nation,” he said. “It makes me almost feel it was worth it.”
Eager to go war, Jim Judge, 86, said he gave up a potential professional baseball career with the Boston Red Sox to enlist.
The Boston native joined the Marine Corps at age 17 and spent all of 1952 on the Korean Peninsula as a machine-gunner.
“I was expected to only last seven minutes out on the battlefield,” he said, jokingly.
Although Judge exceeded expectations in his first day on the job, he described a close call he had with enemy fire during an observe and capture mission.
“While I was digging a hole, I heard a cling. I think someone is shooting at me,” he said. “I picked my pack up, got down behind a hill and I looked at the pack — it had a bullet hole. I opened my pack and my metal mess kit had been hit.”