Forgotten no longer in San Francisco

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More than six decades after the Korean War ended, a memorial honoring those who served was dedicated Aug. 1 in the Presidio National Cemetery in San Francisco.

The dedication ceremony itself was years in the making. Retired Marine Col. John Stevens conceived the idea for the memorial in 2009, when he was 88 years old.

“The Korean War is truly a forgotten war,” said Stevens, a Pearl Harbor survivor who is a member of American Legion Post 384 in San Francisco. “We needed something to remind the people about the war and educate them about the war, which is our secondary mission. Today is the first leg of the journey. The next leg of the journey is to provide education about the war. We’ll have to do that in the schools with materials that we provide because these veterans won’t be here.”

Retired Superior Court Judge Quentin Kopp, an Air Force veteran and a member of Post 238 in Pacifica, is president of the Korean War Memorial Foundation. “We never forget what some people often call the ‘Forgotten War,’” he said prior to the ceremony, noting time has taken away many Korean War veterans with whom he served. “I remember them with sorrow in my heart. They should be here today.”

Kopp explained the significance of the memorial’s location.

“This particular site is across the road from the national cemetery of San Francisco,” he said. “It has a view not only of the bay and the ships that would traverse through the Golden Gate but a view of the Golden Gate Bridge itself, which opened in 1937. This was a landmark that was cherished by those returning from war.”

Nearly 1,000 Korean War veterans, family members and supporters attended the dedication ceremony in the cemetery where 2,273 veterans from the war are buried.

Gerard Parker, the executive director of the foundation, welcomed the more than 50 Korean War veterans in attendance and paid tribute to those who have passed on. “For all of you, this day and this memorial, are for you,” said Parker, a Vietnam veteran and member of Post 384.

Overall, more than 37,000 Americans died in the war, along with thousands of Koreans and Chinese people.

American, Korean and United Nations flags stand at the memorial, which features pictures and plaques illustrating the war. Some panels illustrate the challenges faced by U.S. troops — brutally hot summers and freezing cold winters. The centerpiece panel depicts Marines climbing over a seawall in the invasion of the port of Inchon, an important victory.

Over 1,000 donors helped fund the memorial, including Legion posts throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Among individuals who donated the most is Man Kim, a foundation vice president and restaurateur in San Francisco.

Kim shared a “wonderful memory” of when he was a toddler in South Korea. A GI gave Kim a bottle of the “sweetest tasting thing he ever had.” The simple gift of a bottle of milk inspired Kim to do everything he can to repay Americans and specifically, Korean War veterans.

“This memorial is for the veterans because of whom South Korea is free and a prospering country now,” said Kim, adding that he drinks milk every day now.

Looking toward the future, Stevens hopes that memorial visitors will leave with “some degree of the effort that was made to save Korea and the results of that effort.”

Former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Kathleen Stephens has seen the positive results throughout much of her adult life. The U.S. and South Korea have “a relationship forged in blood,” she said, alluding to a South Korean saying.

“We salute that incredible sacrifice, that incredible bravery,” said Stephens, who first arrived in South Korea in 1975 as a 22-year-old Peace Corps volunteer. “The war was over but memories were fresh. And life was still pretty tough. But Koreans were filled with determination that life was going to get better in the next generation. Me and the other American Peace Corps volunteers were the recipients of undeserving gratitude from the South Koreans for America’s and the U.N.’s defense of the fledgling Republic of Korea.”

Kim Jung-Boon, South Korea’s vice minister of veterans affairs, said the war devastated his nation.

“There were so many homeless and so many orphans. There was no hope,” he said. “Korea was the poorest country in the world. Now Korea is a shining star in the Orient. So the sacrifice was not wasted.”

Denny Weisgerber is among the living Korean War veterans whose actions are still revered by South Koreans across the ocean. Weisgerber, a retired gunnery sergeant with the Marines, received the Navy Cross for his actions during the war.

“This is a great day,” said Weisgerber, a member of Post 546 in Santa Clara, Calif. “It’s a beautiful day. It’s a beautiful sight. This monument faces right toward the 38th parallel. It’s a great and glorious day for the Korean War veterans of the United States. This is the best Korean War memorial in the U.S. And it’s the only major one on the West Coast.”

Still, amid the celebration, there were somber undertones.

“I’ll be thinking of a lot of guys,” Weisgerber said before the ceremony. “I have a good friend who is buried out here, Medal of Honor recipient Staff Sgt. Robert Kennemore. “He and I were in the hospital together. He’s laid to rest right behind me. I think about him a lot. And I think of those who didn’t make it back — not from the battle itself but from the perspective of such young lives. We were only between 18 and 25. It was a hot and heavy deal. A lot of people call it the ‘Forgotten War.’ It will never be forgotten by us.”

Department of California Commander Gary Leach agreed. “This memorial is long overdue,” he said. “Anytime our servicemen and women sacrifice and go overseas and bleed and die, it should never be forgotten. It should always be remembered that we do that.”

Leach praised the Legion members and posts who were involved in the project

“It’s definitely something we are proud of,” he said. “The Legion does a lot of good things for veterans and the communities we live in. Many of them not quite as large as this. But we are proud to be a part of this.”

Nearly every American Legion post in the Bay Area donated to the memorial project, Kopp said. The original goal was to raise $3.5 million for the memorial. However, the foundation raised an extra $200,000, which will be used for an educational program about the Korean War that will be taught in the San Francisco Unified School District.

“I hope that this memorial, with the education program that the foundation should be able to sustain for at least 10 years, will enable Americans remember a time of unity in our political culture, unlike what Americans are confronted with today,” Kopp concluded.