On Thursday of this week old soldiers, perhaps as many as half a million of us, will be in Washington. On the Mall, across from the Black Wall of Vietnam, they're finally getting around to dedicating a national memorial to Americans who fought in Korea. The war began 45 years ago and it ended July 27, 1953, and this is the first time we've mustered since. And for many, it will surely be the last.
The war lasted only 37 months yet nearly as many Americans died, 54,000 of us, as in all the years of Vietnam. There are about 2,000 Vietnam MIAs remaining unaccounted for; there are more than 8,000 MIAs from Korea. But you never hear about those, do you?
I wrote a memoir of Korea called "The Coldest War." But for most people there's a better name, "the forgotten war." Korea came too closely on the heels of World War II, the great historical event of this century; it preceded too closely Vietnam, the most bitterly divisive domestic struggle since the Civil War.
And on Thursday they bless a little bit of hallowed ground.
In truth, those of us who fought there don't really need a monument. Korea is always in our hearts. But for my children and their kids and generations not yet born, there ought to be a dignified little pile of stone or wrought metal to remind people what happened there and what we did.
Not everyone agrees. When the Korean memorial was announced back in 1991 George Will wrote a Newsweek column protesting plans to erect on the Mall yet another monument "to Mars and to irritable factions." He complained there were too many memorials already, that the plans for a Korean shrine were too grandiose, that sensitive people might be offended. He even inquired at one point, rhetorically of course, that since there was now a movement "to put a bronze dog there," whether "K-9 vets vote?"
Well, I don't know how the dogs feel about it but I don't take it amiss that 42 years after the damned war ended, people will pause for a few minutes to remember us. And if Mr. Will really believes Korean vets vote this way or that depending on a piece of statuary, then he is a more patronizing ass than he normally appears Sunday mornings with David and Sam and Cokie.
I'm going down there on the train Wednesday and I really don't know what to expect. Don't know how I'll react. Since this is about Korea, it's sure to be screwed up. "M*A*S*H" surely got that part right. The president of the United States and the president of South Korea are said to have engaged in a sort of ritual dance of the Alphonse-Gaston variety because the South Koreans are irritated we've dealt directly with the whackos who run North Korea.
I couldn't care less. It'll be hot and sticky and we'll all be out somewhere on that grassy lawn and won't be able to hear the words or probably even see the monument but just being there, being with the guys, is what it's all about. The night before Dog Company of the 7th Marines gathers at the Stouffer Hotel out at National Airport, and there'll be men in that room who haven't seen each other for more than 40 years and who have little in common but memories. We have plenty of those.
The cold. The ridgelines. The wind coming out of Siberia and off the Sea of Japan. The snow. The mud. The hills, damn them. The trenches and the bunkers and the stench of unwashed men and the waxy look of bodies hanging on the wire. The patrols and night ambushes and the terror some of us had of mines. The incoming and how we cringed under the logs and sandbags and tried to burrow deeper into the ground.
We fought there three years and defeated the North Koreans and fought the Chinese army to a standstill and there were 40 divisions of Chinese regulars and only half a dozen American divisions and a very good British Commonwealth division and a handful of other Europeans. The South Korean army? With notable exceptions you will forgive me for saying it was a joke.
We'll talk about all that, I suppose, swapping yarns and telling lies, and recalling what the Old Gunny said of Korea, that you shouldn't knock it. "It ain't much of a war but it's the only one we got." Mostly, I think, we'll remember the men.
I've got my own list, too long to enter here, but a few I'd like to see engraved somewhere. Some are dead, some are sick, some will be there this week in D.C.
Dick Brennan up there in Connecticut in the VA hospital. Mack Allen of VMI and the Harvard B School retired in Richmond. Taffy Sceva out in San Jose and still climbing mountains. Carly Rand dead in that plane crash before he could even get to the division. Captain Chafee now a United States senator. Herb MacDonald, the machine gunner dead up in New England and Charles Curley, the retired schoolteacher in Olean, N.Y. Lou Faust a broadcaster in Palm Springs. Jay Scott, a member of the Du Pont clan, dead in an auto accident. Rudy Wrabel dead in Connecticut. Ramon Gibson still flying down there in Arlington, Texas. Marty Russ, still writing books. Pierce Power, who took Hill 749, retired from the law.
Jim "Wild Horse" Callan, the New Mexico rancher, killed by the Chinese. John Fitzgerald, best sergeant I ever had, a retired cop in a small town in Michigan. John Ledes, a publisher in New York. Duke Colegate killed by our own machine guns. Red Phillips and Tex Lissman, where are they? Bob Simonis and Jack Rowe, living in San Diego. Stew McCarty down in Virginia. Doug Bradlee who played football at Harvard, killed at 23 by the Chinese.
They'll be there too, Thursday on that field near Mr. Lincoln's statue when America pauses, if only for a moment, to remember us.
We were once all 20. And are no longer. Except for those of us who died on the Naktong. Or at Inchon. Or in the streets of Seoul. Or at the Chosin, at Koto-ri or old Hagaru. Or on Hill 749. And Bunker Hill. Or the outposts, Reno and Carson City. Or in the sky over Mig Alley.
Remember them. Remember us.