Erie County Korean War Veterans Remember ‘Forgotten War’
Seventy-two years ago, a 19-year-old soldier from Harborcreek approached the northern border of the Korean Peninsula when he encountered the man who was eager to wage war across it.
“Sit down, boys,” Bob Southard, now 93, recalled General Douglas MacArthur telling him and the phalanx of soldiers who stood to attention.
It was 1950. And Southard, an Army private first class and driver of an M19, an anti-aircraft vehicle now used as ground support for infantry, was part of a massive troop push Americans who had turned the course of Korea. War, pushing North Korean forces to the top of the peninsula.
Parking his vehicle along a dirt road, Southard was shocked to see MacArthur exit the vehicle beside him. The hot-headed general who had led Allied forces in the Pacific during World War II and now commanded United Nations forces led by the United States in Korea, was there to sound out the ranks – and plan his next move.
“We all knew what he wanted to do,” Southard said, referring to MacArthur’s urge to attack China after it sent thousands of troops to support the North Koreans. “But (President) Truman stopped him. And I’m glad he did because I probably wouldn’t be here right now.”
Southard has already had his fair share of close calls. Since arriving in Korea, he had come under mortar fire, had to deal with sub-zero temperatures and even had a bullet inches from his head, an experience he describes with a wave of his hand and a hissing sound near his ear.
The memories, much like the encounter with MacArthur, were sometimes still immersive, prompting a quick smile or a moment of dark reflection on what might have been. Other times the memories were elusive, hazy, perhaps ones the nonagenarian would prefer not to share.
“I was scared,” Southard said. “And don’t let anyone tell you they weren’t. Because I’ll tell you what, I’ll call them liars.”
Southard, who now lives in an idyllic little house in Millcreek Township, is one of about 8,000 Erie County residents who served in the military during the Korean War, according to Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
Although neither the commission nor the US Department of Veterans Affairs could tell exactly how many Erie County residents were deployed to Korea during the conflict, former Erie County VA Director John Williams estimated that just over 1,000 are alive today – most of them over 90 years old.
As for those killed in action, Williams said 74 Erie County residents never returned home, their names now engraved at the War Memorial of Korea, completed in 2006 near the corner of 26th and State streets.
Southard, who left the service in 1956 as a staff sergeant in the Army National Guard and later became a truck driver for the Hammermill Paper Co., said he didn’t didn’t dwell much on Korea – even with her two adult sons, one of whom is an Army colonel. But service to the country still matters to him.
Dotted around his home is a slew of patriotic and military trinkets, from statuettes of bald eagles and paratroopers to American flags and red, white and blue fridge magnets.
As Southard said, the Korean War may be considered “the forgotten war” – it is eclipsed in history by World War II and the Vietnam War – but those who fought on this peninsula and those who knew someone who died for it will never be accused of forgetting.
“You really can’t forget it,” he said. “A lot of people – a lot of men – gave their lives. And they should take care of their families.”
The history of war
The three-year conflict in Korea was the first significant clash between communist and capitalist forces in the West that paved the way for Soviet-American rivalry during the Cold War.
While the Korean War was never resolved – it ended in a stalemate at the 38th parallel in 1953 – its legacy in South Korea, now a thriving democracy, is evident.
“It was one of the only times nation-building succeeded,” Williams said. “We stopped Communism from taking over another Western-oriented country. It tested the mettle of the free world. And it worked.”
By the time the armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, approximately 40,000 American soldiers had died. The sacrifice was recalled in 2017 by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, when he described the alliance with the United States as “forged in blood under the fire of war”, according to the Korean War Legacy Foundation.
Memorials :A space of their own
Build new friendships
For Jack Wonner, building these friendships was essential.
The 89-year-old Union City native, who was drafted into the army in 1952 and deployed to Korea at the end of the war, was assigned to a fire station in Daegu, formerly known as Taegu , a city in the southeast region. from South Korea.
A corporal trained in an Army firefighting unit, Wonner would become an assistant fire chief at his duty station, on call for any fires in the surrounding community. As he described it, the work was fairly quiet – not only had the fighting stopped, but the nearby Korean fire station often responded to fires first.
What was left was an opportunity to hang out with the Koreans, he said.
“We got along very well with the Koreans,” Wonner said. “And the biggest thing that happened was that I became really good friends with our interpreter, a Korean named Kim.”
Wonner said Kim gathered all the Korean firefighters and gave him a farewell gift the day he left the peninsula.
Wonner, who now lives at the Pennsylvania Soldiers and Sailors Home in Erie, said he later met Kim and her family when they moved to Toronto and Kim’s children call him “Uncle John.”
“I got along really well with people in Korea,” he said. “I don’t regret going there.”
Erie Korean War Memorial
Those friendships — and those sacrifices — were what made veterans like Wonner and Southard so special, Williams said.
It is also what has made them worthy of proper tribute in the community.
As Erie County VA director from 1997 to 2007 and chairman of a committee to develop a Korean War Memorial, Williams said he was proud to remind the county of these men whose service has often been overlooked.
The memorial, which has the phrases “The Forgotten War Remembered” and “Freedom Is Not Free” coined at its top, took three years to build and was completed in 2006.
“They went through three years of hell in this war, and it took three years to build this memorial,” Williams said. “The importance of that doesn’t escape me. I think it’s something special.”