WASHINGTON, July 26, 2013 – With plans to participate in ceremonies in Washington, D.C., July 27 marking the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice agreement, a veteran who lost two limbs in the conflict said he’s proud of what thousands who fought there accomplished — and what those who followed in their footsteps have preserved.
Retired Army Col. William Weber was a young lieutenant when he arrived in Korea with the 187th Airborne Regiment Combat Team in August 1950, joining U.S. Marines on the ground in the bloody Battle of Seoul.
Five months after his deployment, Weber was severely wounded – first by a strike that claimed his arm shortly before midnight on Feb. 15, 1951, and another attack several hours later that took his leg. He was evacuated to an Army hospital in Tokyo to be stabilized before his transfer to the Percy Jones Army Hospital in Battle Creek, Mich., one of three military facilities that specialized in amputee care.
Now approaching his 88th birthday, Weber still vividly recalls the frustration of prolonged ceasefire negotiations that started shortly after he medically evacuated from Korea dragged on for two years before the armistice was reached.
Half of the casualties of the war – in which 36,574 U.S. troops died and another 103,284 were wounded – occurred as the talks languished, Weber noted.
“It was a travesty of common sense on the part of the communists,” he said. “They are the ones who delayed it because of demands they made and the hope that they could achieve politically what they couldn’t achieve militarily.”
Even today, 60 years after the United Nations, North Korea and China signed the armistice agreement, Weber expressed disappointment that the final peace treaty that was to follow within 60 days never materialized.
That has left the two Koreas still technically at war, and Weber expressed dismay over North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s public nullification of the armistice earlier this year.
Yet Weber is quick to note the significance of what he called “a significant benchmark of the 20th century.”
“It was a catalyst that began the downfall of the attempt of communism to dominate the world,” he said.
Weber, who served in World War II as well as Korea, sees a common thread.
“I like to remind people that World War II saved the world for democracy. Korea saved it from communism,” he said. “That is where we drew a line in the sand as a free world, and indicated that we would not allow armed aggression to conquer a free people. And since that time, it never has. The world took a stance and it worked.”
Yet like many of his Korean War comrades, Weber said, he remains perplexed that it remains known as “the Forgotten War.”
“If you look at history books that teach children about American history, it is a three-paragraph war,” he said. Most of what’s written focuses not on the war itself, but on the controversy between then-President Harry S. Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, he noted. Truman fired MacArthur as commander of U.N. military forces in South Korea in April 1951.
The United States was preoccupied during the Korean War, Weber said, still reveling as troops home from World War II went to school, re-entered the job market and settled down to start families. “It was la-la land,” he said.
The last thing most Americans wanted at the time was the distraction of another foreign war, particularly one that initially started as a “police action,” he said.
Yet that police action escalated. At the height of the war, about a half-million U.S., United Nations and South Korean forces found themselves arrayed against 1.5 million Chinese and North Korean forces.
“Nowhere during World War II did American forces ever face as many enemies in such a short frontage as in Korea,” Weber said. “It was the bloodiest foreign war in terms of the percentage of casualties we have ever fought.”
Weber rattled off statistics to back up his claim: The chance of those serving being killed or wounded during World War I was 1 in 22; during World War II, 1 in 12; in Vietnam, 1 in 17.
“If you went to Korea, you stood one chance in nine of being killed or wounded,” he said. “American [service members] died at the average rate of 1,000 a month and were wounded at the rate of 3,000 a month for 36 continuous months on a peninsula that was only 160 miles wide.”
To help honor that sacrifice, Weber served nine years on the the presidentially appointed advisory board that led to the dedication of the Korean War Veterans Memorial on Washington’s National Mall in 1995.
The memorial features 19 seven-foot-tall stainless steel soldiers on patrol, the wind blowing their ponchos as they move across the landscape.
But to Weber, who chairs the Korean War Veterans Memorial Foundation, the memorial honors those who served in Korea, but not who made the ultimate sacrifice. He and many other Korean War veterans hope to one day erect a glass remembrance wall that lists those who died in the conflict.
“The American people have never been told the cost of that freedom [won in Korea]. Well, it is 36,574 dead and 103,284 wounded in 36 months of continuous, unbroken combat,” Weber said. “You won’t find anything like that anywhere in America’s history of foreign wars.”
Visiting South Korea for the first time since the war in 2002, Weber said he has no doubt that the sacrifices have paid off.
“I saw firsthand the amazing things the [South] Koreans have done with the freedom that we have enabled them to have,” he said. “A population and a nation that was decimated has become the 12th-largest economy in the world.”
Weber said he remains struck by the gratitude the South Korean people continue to show for those who came to their defense.
He noted, for example, the ongoing Korea Revisit Program, paid for by the South Korean government, which provides Korean War veterans free hotel rooms, meals and tours of Korea.
“It’s an unbelievable thing, the respect and admiration they have for Americans and their U.N. counterparts because of what they did to save their country,” he said.
With the average Korean War veteran now 84 years old, and the population declining by about 700 a day, Weber said, America’s memory of the Korean War is likely to fade as well.
Even after tomorrow’s commemoration, expected to draw thousands of the half-million living Korean veterans to the National Mall, Weber is pragmatic about what will follow.
“I predict with certainty that right after the 27th of July, the Korean War will fall back into the cracks of history again,” he said.
What will keep it alive, he said, is the legacy left by those who fought in the Korean War and of the service of those who have continued to defend South Korea during the past six decades.
Since the signing of the armistice, North Korean attacks have killed 100 U.S. and more than 450 South Korean troops.
Today, 28,500 U.S. forces continue to serve in South Korea, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with their South Korean counterparts to provide security on the peninsula.
“They are trip wires,” Weber said. Even with the South Korean Army now holding the demilitarized zone created by the armistice agreement, “the Americans are there, so the North Koreans know that if anything started, the United States would be involved,” he said.
Together, they continue to demonstrate the commitment Webber and his fellow Korean War veterans made six decades ago, he said.
“You can take a good, hard look at what Korea is today and realize that, at one part of our history, we were responsible for that happening. We saved a free people and kept them free and gave them an opportunity to take advantage of their innate ability to progress as a nation,” Weber said.
“One can’t possibly look at the South Korea of today without accepting the fact that what we did there was justified and necessary,” he said. “So you tell me: Why is it an unknown war in the id of American culture?”