By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Saturday will mark the 60th anniversary of an armistice that ended three years of bloody and frustrating war on the Korean Peninsula — a conflict that killed about 50,000 Americans, plus millions of Koreans and Chinese.
At a 60th anniversary armistice commemoration on Sunday morning at Hawaii Veterans Cemetery No. 1, emcee Hiroshi Shima of Korean War Veterans Big Island Chapter 231 noted with irony that President Harry Truman “said the war was not a war” and had referred to it as a “police action.”
“The armistice was signed on July 27, 1953. It was designed to ensure a complete cessation of hostilities and all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peace settlement was achieved. No final peace settlement has been achieved yet,” the 86-year-old Shima said.
“We lost 50-thousand in that war, can you imagine that? Fifty-thousand,” former Mayor Harry Kim said of the conflict referred to as “The Forgotten War.” “In the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, we lost, in round numbers, 5,000.” Hawaii lost 456 servicemembers in the Korean War; 47 of those killed were from the Big Island.
Anita Matthews’ brother, Pfc Fernando Rivera Jr., was taken prisoner while fighting near Taejon, South Korea, on July 20, 1950, and was forced to march to North Korea on the “Tiger Death March.” Rivera, a member of the Army’s Co. L, 3rd Battalion, 34th Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division, died during the march between Manpo and Chunggangjin, North Korea on Nov. 2, 1950. His remains have not been recovered.
“My mother kind of knew my brother would not make it in Korea because he was very kind and hardly ever got into a fight or got angry with anyone or anything,” Matthews said. “… I remember the day when a big yellow envelope came in the mail. That was the first time I’d ever seen a man cry. My father dropped that letter to the ground and I picked it up, read it and took it to my mom. It was a very sad day that lasted a long time at our house.”
Rivera was a couple of months shy of his 21st birthday when he died. Matthews, who attended the ceremony with sister Elsie Rivera, said that their father, who died in 1975, and mother, who died in 1995, “both held onto the hope that his remains would be found.”
The keynote speaker was Suh Young-kil, South Korea’s consul general in Honolulu. Suh, a retired Republic of Korea Navy vice admiral, expressed his “sincere gratitude for your service” to the handful of Korean War veterans among the 100 or so in attendance.
“We Koreans will never forget that freedom is not free,” he said.
Suh told the story of Capt. Emil Kapaun, a Catholic priest and U.S. Army chaplain from Kansas who, according to fellow soldiers, ran into enemy fire and jumped into foxholes to pull wounded soldiers to safety until he was taken prisoner.
“He was unafraid of dying,” Suh said. “When he was ordered to evacuate, he stayed behind to care for the wounded until he was captured. In the prison camp, he kept practicing inner peace and inspired fellow prisoners until (his) death.”
Fellow soldiers said that as a POW, Kapaun dug latrines, mediated disputes, gave his own food to fellow soldiers and stole coffee, tea and dysentery drugs from his captors for his comrades’ benefit.
Kapaun, who died at 35 in a prison camp on May 23, 1951, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in April by President Barack Obama.
“Today, I’m honored to be in the company of Korean War veterans who fought for peace and the freedom of Korea like Father Emil Kapaun did,” Suh said, adding that future generations of Koreans will “carry on your legacies as the proud ally of the United States.”
“The alliance between the Republic of Korea and the United States was built upon the tears and sweat of those who fought on the battlefield of 60 years ago,” he noted. “… That alliance has served as the linchpin for the prosperity of the Asia and Pacific regions.”
Shima also praised the rise of South Korea from sleepy agrarian nation to prosperous industrial power.
“South Korea was devastated. All the homes, farms, industries destroyed by the battles,” he said. “… But after armistice, one generation later, South Korea emerged a miracle country. … Today, after 60 years of freedom, names like Samsung, Hyundai, Kia, LG, … the world’s 10th biggest economy, competing against the world’s heavyweights and excelling. … This is a showcase to the world, what they’ve accomplished in a few generations.”
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.