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Trip to South Korea helps Minnesota son complete his Marine veteran father's story

Gregg Peppin took in a ceremony honoring Korean War veterans, including his late father, Richard.

STAR TRIBUNE/TNS

By REID FORGRAVE | Star Tribune (Minneapolis) | Published: November 8, 2019

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. (Tribune News Service) — Gregg Peppin knew his father, Richard, had seen awful stuff when he fought in the Korean War. The 18-year-old Minnesota Marine was only in the country for a month, but it was an awful month. He landed in Incheon — a coastal city adjacent to Seoul and about 200 miles from the North Korean border — in November 1950, just as China was entering the conflict. He soon found himself in the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, a brutal 17-day battle that saw the harshest weather and highest number of casualties of the war.

The elder Peppin was injured when a munitions depot exploded during the United Nations retreat. He served out the remainder of his four years of service with an honor guard in Washington, D.C.

Growing up in Golden Valley, Gregg Peppin only heard bits and pieces of his father’s Korea experience. “When I asked my mom about it, she said, ‘Your dad saw a lot of dead people,’ ” Peppin recalled. Snapshots of the horrors of war would occasionally slip out. The five kids knew dad never slept well, but they never connected it to post-traumatic stress disorder. Once, Peppin’s father looked at his granddaughter and said she was the same age as a young girl in Korea whose arm was blown off. And that was pretty much all he ever said.

“He didn’t talk about the war — just didn’t talk about it,” Peppin said.

Still, Peppin knew Korea shaped his father. After his father retired as CEO for a company that manufactures maintenance equipment for railroads, Peppin — a longtime Republican strategist in Minnesota — heard the Minnesota Department of Transportation had special license plates for Korean War veterans. He knew his dad wouldn’t put the plate on his car, so Peppin got an unofficial sample plate for him.

Months later, Peppin found the Korean War license plate buried in a closet in his dad’s garage behind a stack of woodworking magazines.

“I took that as if he was trying to put this part of his life out of his mind,” Peppin said.

But Peppin could never get his father’s Korean War service out of his own mind. The 58-year-old wanted to connect with his dad’s unreachable past. That desire only strengthened after his dad died in 2013. A couple of years ago, he was at a pancake breakfast at Mary Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Rogers when a Korean War veteran named Norb Zahler told him of a trip he’d just taken back to the country he’d fought a war in nearly 70 years before. The veteran trips, which are subsidized by the South Korean government, are also open to family of Korean War veterans, Zahler told him. Peppin called up a friend, Randy Gilbert of Wayzata, whose father served in the Air Force during the Korean War, and who also didn’t talk about his service.

A month ago, Peppin and Gilbert and their wives, Joyce and D’Ann, flew halfway across the world for a week, touring the country their fathers helped keep free of communism. Two buses shuttled 40 veterans and their families all around South Korea. They arrived from across the United States; Peppin and Gilbert were the only Minnesotans.

They toured the War Memorial of Korea museum in Seoul. The Korean Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs put on a dinner and ceremony, attended by 7,000 Koreans and the top American general, where the veterans and their families were presented with Ambassador of Peace medals from the South Korean government.

“For me, it was to go where he went and just shut my eyes and think, ‘What was war like in 1950, and what did my dad experience?’?” Peppin said.

Added Gilbert: “All I learned about the Korean War was one paragraph in eight-grade social studies and watching M*A*S*H*.”

The week in South Korea helped both men fill in holes from their fathers’ lives. It’s a hole plenty of Americans have about this era. Korea is often considered America’s “forgotten war,” tucked between World War II, which was fought by “the Greatest Generation,” and the politicized and controversial Vietnam War. Korea was America’s and the western world’s first major military response to the spread of communism, and was one of the foundations of the Cold War.

It was an emotional experience when Peppin sat at the ceremony, which included honoring a half-dozen living veterans who served with his father at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. Peppin imagined his father, who had part of his left leg amputated late in life due to multiple sclerosis, being wheeled up there with the other veterans.

“I knew [that] when they played that national anthem,” Peppin said, “he would have stood on one leg for that flag.”

Gilbert, too, was deeply moved. At the ceremony, a 90-year-old veteran turned to Gilbert and said, “Your father would be really proud of you.”

Fred Lash of Military Historical Tours Inc., which administers the Revisit Korea Program, clarified its mission: “It’s just to pay back and say thanks to Americans for saving their you-know-whats in the 1950s,” he said. “Otherwise, they’d be just like [North Korean capital] Pyongyang.”

The trip was an opportunity for the two friends to reminisce about their fathers. Back in Washington, Peppin’s dad met, and later married, Peppin’s mother, who was raised in Virginia and was working at the time in J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI office. They moved back to Minnesota, where Peppin’s father worked his way up from a laborer in the taconite mines to CEO.

Gilbert’s father, who signed up for the military before he turned 16, served for 20 years in the Air Force before becoming a meat cutter. He taught his four children to chop wood and use tools, took Randy hunting and, when Randy bagged his first deer, handed him a knife so he could field dress it on his own. “You’re going to learn,” Gilbert recalled his father telling him.

“He wanted to make certain I knew how to do all the things he did. He was my best friend.”

The trip also served as a reaffirmation of American goodness in this divided and confusing time, Gilbert said. Things were simpler back then: There was communism, or there was capitalism. The Soviet Union and China, or the free and democratic West. When North Korea attacked South Korea, the United Nations — led by the United States — defended free people and stopped the flow of communism. A simple equation. Revisiting this time period was, for these two Minnesotans, a reaffirmation of America’s goodness.

The most emotional part of the trip was seeing the glint in veterans’ eyes, Gilbert said. At times it seemed like the men were 18 again. Other times, it seemed like they’d finally come to terms with what that war nearly seven decades ago had accomplished.

“They were told it would be 100 years before South Korea got back to any semblance of prosperity,” Gilbert said. “These guys are looking at it like, ‘We helped make this.’ And they were so proud. It was like the scene from ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ when the guy is dying, and Private Ryan says, ‘Make this worth it.’

“And these guys made it worth it.”

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