Nearly 5 million people died in the Korean War, a conflict that began in June 1950 and ended in July 1953. More than half of those killed were civilians — a civilian death rate higher than World War II and the Vietnam War — accounting for about 10% of the pre-war population of Korea.
Among the dead were more than 40,000 American troops; another 100,000 were wounded. (According to the U.S. Department of Defense, all told, 54,246 American service men and women lost their lives worldwide during the Korean War.)
“[The Korean Conflict] is sometimes called the ‘Forgotten War,’” President Biden said on May 21 as he awarded the Medal of Honor — the nation’s highest military honor — to retired Army Col. Ralph Puckett Jr. of Columbus, Ga., for his heroism in battle 70 years ago. In 1992, Puckett was an inaugural inductee in the U.S. Army Ranger Hall of Fame.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has not forgotten. He attended the ceremony to pay his respects to Puckett and the Eighth Army Ranger Company Puckett led, the first foreign leader to attend such a ceremony.
“Col. Puckett is a true hero of the Korean War,” Moon said. “Without the sacrifice of veterans including Col. Puckett and the Eighth Army Ranger Company, [the] freedom and democracy we enjoy today couldn’t have blossomed in Korea.”
Among the attendees was Puckett’s fellow warrior, Master Sgt. Merle Simpson (ret.). “It was hard for Ralph to lose a man, and he has never forgotten that,” Simpson said. “I cannot speak for all those that passed away, but I am honored to be part of this.”
South Korea’s president understands the loss. A day later, on May 22, he was at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., a haunting series of 19 steel statues of servicemen symbolizing the brutal conflict. There, he broke ground on the Korean War Veterans Memorial Wall of Remembrance he had promised in 2018 he would build. It will be engraved with the names of 43,769 fallen soldiers.
“These sons and daughters of the United States fought in the Korean War to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met,” Moon said. “Thanks to their dedication and sacrifices, the Republic of Korea could protect freedom and peace and has been able to achieve the prosperity enjoyed today.
“We will remember the valor and devotion of those heroes forever.”
Nor has that nation forgotten those who never made it home. Moon described the ongoing search for the remains of fallen soldiers in 41 areas, including the Demilitarized Zone. They also have identified 74 Americans among 55 boxes of remains North Korea has repatriated to the United States since 2018.
Atlanta resident Sunny Park, who immigrated to the United States from South Korea, has spent his life and philanthropy showing his appreciation to the country that saved the land of his birth during his childhood. Park was honored by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation in 2020 with the Freedom Award as an outstanding Georgian. He honors veterans of the Korean War every year in Atlanta; their ranks are dwindling as age takes its toll.
“The United States was the leading country among 16 under the United Nations to fight against Communist North Korea and China for South Koreans. So many precious lives were devoted to freedom, human rights and the life of the South Korean people,” Park says.
Park wants his fellow Americans to know: “The families who lost their loved ones, nephews, brothers, uncles, friends — their lives were not just wasted in a foreign country that doesn’t know, that forgot.
“South Korea was the second poorest country in the world. The United States — you, the people of America — and, particularly, those who died for South Koreans, helped the country to stand up. The Korean people took advantage of the momentum and worked hard and became one of the strongest countries in the world.
“The United States helped and deployed soldiers and aid to so many countries. South Korea is the country I know that is most thankful, remembering every individual who lost his life, and teaching its young children about that supreme sacrifice.
“Their lives were not wasted, not forgotten. They brought freedom, life and prosperity for 50 million people. Today, South Korea is the strongest ally of the USA in the world.”
Memorial Day is the one day set aside to honor all Americans who made the supreme sacrifice. Every day, 87 South Korean companies are open for business in Georgia alone, contributing to this state’s prosperity. Lest we forget, every day that happens, it’s because of those who went before us, for us.
[Benita Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. Established in 1991, the Foundation is an independent resource for voters and elected officials. © Georgia Public Policy Foundation (May 28, 2021).]