Son of Korean War soldier finds boy who posed with dad in photo
March 5, 2003
YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — The black-and-white photo looks wrinkled and battered, but the expression is golden: a soldier and a boy with confident, friendly smiles.
It was circa 1952. The Korean War had wound to a nasty stalemate: bloody battles waged over Korea’s mountains with neither side gaining. American and Koreans — with soldiers from more than a dozen other countries — fought to repel the North Korean invasion.
About 15 miles south of Seoul, Cpl. Herman Cupp was stationed at an airstrip called K-13. A heavy equipment mechanic, Cupp spent five months there building hangars with an Army unit specially assigned to the Air Force.
Cupp, now 68, remembers a Korean boy who helped around the camp, running errands for cash to feed his family. After the war, the photo was tossed in a box and Cupp became a mortician in the civilian world.
“I always thought about the boy and what happened to him,” Cupp, who is retired in New Tazwell, Tenn., said in a telephone interview.
Cupp was about 18 when the photo was taken. He looks young and tall next to the boy. For a half-century, the boy was in effect nameless; the photo was one of hundreds taken of U.S. servicemembers and Koreans who united for battle but separated after hostilities ended.
This time, however, the soldier’s son, Sgt. John Cupp, picked up the quest to find the boy he’d wondered about when he first saw the photo as a child.
The sergeant, a journalist with the 2nd Infantry Division’s public affairs office, brought the photo with him to Korea in September.
“All kinds of things pop in your head,” Cupp said. He wondered how the boy is doing now. “Is he alive? What kind of work does he do?”
John Cupp gave the photo to a journalist he knew through his work. The Donga Ilbo, a national Korean newspaper, published it Dec. 23.
The calls came flooding in, Cupp said.
Then, Cupp said, the challenge became to match fuzzy memories with fuzzy memories. His father remembered giving the boy a raincoat, but not much more.
“He asked me one day about some protection,” Herman Cupp said. “I gave him a raincoat.”
When the boy returned the coat, Herman Cupp smelled a rank surprise.
“That was one of the ways he remembered who I was,” the Korean War soldier said. “In the raincoat, he had left a piece of dried fish. When I came back to the States, I had a problem eating fish.”
Of all who called, Chong Sul-nam stood out. He remembered not only the raincoat but also much about the airstrip at Suwon. During the war, his older brother was a gate guard on base.
Soon after, Chong began working on base too, shining shoes, cleaning and running errands for soldiers. In return, he got about $20 a month, with extra food and uniforms.
Now, the 63-year-old Chong runs a hardware store in Suwon, the same town where he met his friend 51 years earlier. Chong said he’d like to meet Herman Cupp.
But Herman Cupp recently battled prostate cancer and has diabetes. He said he can’t travel to South Korea.
“I’m sorry to hear that he has cancer,” Chong said. “I really appreciate him trying to find me.”
They may meet soon anyway.
A civic group in Tongduchon, host to U.S. Army Camp Casey, has offered to pay $2,000 for Chong to go to Tennessee. The group wants to show its gratitude to Herman Cupp and the U.S. soldiers who served in the war. Kim Il-young, head of the Tongduchon branch of International People to People, said he appreciated Cupp fighting for Koreans.
Chong said he’s interested in traveling to the States to meet the elder Cupp and is working out the details with the group.
For Cupp, a meeting would bring a bit more closure to a war he rarely spoke about after he returned to the States. A meeting between the two would help goodwill between Americans and Koreans, he said.
“I had a good duty there on the front lines as far as being in the service,” Cupp said. “I hope that boy can get over here.”
Choe Song-won contributed to this report.