Tuesday, January 21, 2003

Vets look back at Korean War

'They should have let us finish the job'

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

They're in their late 60s and early 70s now, men with still-vivid memories of a war they fought to an inconclusive end a half-century ago.

Jesse Willingham of Sycamore Township earned the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
Now, 50 years later, they see the present turmoil on that peninsula halfway around the world and think that, while they kept South Korea free, North Korea is the same dangerous communist dictatorship today that it was 50 years ago.

"It sticks in your craw,'' said Jesse Willingham of Sycamore Township, who earned a Purple Heart and Silver Star with the Army's 25th Infantry Division. "I think most of us have felt that way for 50 years now.''

Mr. Willingham carries the marks of his Korea service in the bullet wound in his right leg. He sometimes uses a cane and walker to get around, the result of nerve damage from frostbite he suffered fighting against communist soldiers in the November 1950 battle of the Chongjin Reservoir.

"It's very hard not to look at what is happening in Korea today and just shake your head in sadness,'' Mr. Willingham says.

Al Kratschmar, Pat DiLonardo, George Kerber, Gene Molen and Bob McGeorge are Korean War veterans and members of VFW Post 7340.
(Michael E. Keating photo)

• 1945: As World War II ended, the Korean peninsula was divided into two separate entities at the 38th parallel: North Korea, an area of heavy industry that was headed by a militant regime taking its orders from the Soviet Union; and South Korea, an area of extreme poverty with no unified government.

• 1950: On June 25, 60,000 North Korean troops swarmed across the 38th parallel in an invasion of the south. The United Nations asked for troops to restore peace. On June 27, President Harry Truman ordered the Air Force and Navy to Korea; three days later, he authorized ground troops.

By November, UN troops reached North Korea's border with China. China responded by sending 200,000 soldiers across the border, driving back the UN forces.

• 1951: By spring, heavy fighting continued, but battle lines had stabilized around the 38th parallel border. In July, the UN began cease-fire talks.

• 1953: Armistice was signed ending the conflict.

Nearly 55,000 American soldiers, Marines and sailors died in Korea from 1950 to 1953, trying to stop the North Korean communists from spreading their influence below the 38th parallel and reaching even further into Asia. Another 100,000 were wounded.

The war came to an abrupt end with a truce on July 27, 1953, with the communists in North Korea still in control.

Today, communists still rule in the north, and political turmoil continues in the south. With its nuclear weaponry and aggressive attitude, North Korea poses a threat to world peace that, some say, exceeds even that of Iraq.

"They should have let us finish the job,'' says Pat Dilonardo of Reading, sitting in VFW Post 7340 in Groesbeck with four friends, all veterans of Korea.

Mr. Dilonardo fought on the front lines with the U.S. Army's 2nd Infantry Division, which still has troops in South Korea. He says the fact that the military was prevented from toppling the communist regime explains why Korea is still a very dangerous place.

"Every Korean War vet I've ever talked to feels the same way,'' Mr. Dilonardo says. "When you are a soldier and you fight a war, any war, you go in to win. In Korea, we saw 54,000 Americans die. And it ended right where it started, on the 38th Parallel."

More than 230,000 men and women in Ohio and Kentucky served in Korea. No one knows how many are in the Tristate; Cincinnati's chapter of the Korean War Veterans Association lists 80 members.

Those around the VFW table in Groesbeck saw the war from different perspectives but came away with the same feelings about what they had done there.

Bob McGeorge of White Oak fought with the 401st Heavy Mortar Battalion; for 10 months, he never left the front lines.

Gene Molen was an Army paratrooper who did 10 years of active duty and left as a sergeant first class.

Al Kretschmar of Reading served in the Navy on board the USS Curtis.

George Kerber of Finneytown was in the Air Force and spent 2 1/2 years in Korea.

All of them bristle when the war is referred to as the "Korean conflict,'' since no formal declaration of war was ever made. Recognition that a war was fought came only in the late 1998 when President Clinton signed an order saying so.

"Best thing he ever did,'' Mr. Dilonardo says.

All are proud of their service, citing an improved economy and quality of life for people in the south.

"You go to Seoul now, and you think you are in downtown Chicago,'' Mr. McGeorge says. "It's nothing like the backwater it was 50 years ago.''

For the most part, the men at the VFW post think that even with the threat North Korea poses today, the Bush administration is right to focus on negotiating with the North Koreans and taking military action against Iraq - even though there has yet to be proof that Saddam Hussein is developing weapons of mass destruction.

"Yes, the North Koreans have nuclear weapons, but they aren't equipped to threaten us with them,'' Mr. Kerber says. "They are a threat, but I think we can still talk to them.''

Mr. McGeorge, who heads Cincinnati's war veterans chapter, agrees.

"The North Koreans are smart enough to know that if they try anything, they can easily be annihilated, wiped off the face of the earth,'' he says.

Mr. Willingham is not so sure.

"From what I can tell, North Korea is a much bigger threat to us than that fool in Iraq,'' he says. "I think we may be hitting the wrong one.''

E-mail hwilkinson@enquirer.com

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