Two Korean War veterans, bonded by common memories of an often-overlooked conflict, will join others in returning to scenes of battles on the 50th anniversary of the armistice.
LUTZ - Murdoch Ford was 15 when he lied to become a Marine.
That was the easy part. In a matter of months the small, scrappy kid from Bayonne, N.J. - too young to get a driver's license - was 6,900 miles from home, steering a tank for dear life down the war-torn streets of Seoul, Korea.
Those were the early, chaotic days of the Korean War. On June 25, 1950, communist North Korea had launched a surprise attack on the democratic south, pushing U.S. and South Korean Army units into a small corner around the southeast port city of Pusan. The situation was bleak, at best.
Then came the amphibious invasion at Inchon, one of the war's most famous maneuvers. Ford, greener than grass, participated in the precarious landing off the Yellow Sea that left the communists reeling. Suddenly the Americans were on the offensive, marching toward the besieged South Korean capital.
The Marines carved a path of destruction on their way to the city. Ford remembers his tank unit shooting down light poles from which enemy soldiers were dropping Molotov cocktails on American troops.
"We either walked through it or blew it up," he said.
Fifty years later, Ford, now 69 and living in Lutz, is returning to a wholly different South Korea. One with standing street poles - and cars, businesspeople, skyscrapers and democratic institutions. A modern country with a high standard of living.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the armistice that ended the bloody, three-year war. The conflict cost 33,000 American lives, but it saved South Korea from a communist assault backed by China and the former Soviet Union.
On Tuesday 7/22, Ford and three more Hillsborough County veterans will take an 18-hour flight to Seoul. For the next week, they and hundreds of other veterans from around the United States will be honored by South Korean dignitaries and, despite current divisions over America's role there, probably many of the country's people.
Ford, the sole Marine in the group, will be joined by Army veterans James Smith, 76, and Sam Hayes, 70, both of Tampa. Another Army veteran, Clarence Clifton 70, of Dover, will go with his daughter, April, a 24-year-old history teacher at King High School in Tampa.
Ford and Smith, who became buddies after the war and often share their experiences with local students, recently talked about the anticipation leading up to the all-expenses-paid trip, a gift from the Korean Federation of Industries.
It's a time of reckoning for the pair, both decorated veterans with Purple Hearts. Opinions about America's so-called "Forgotten War" are mixed: did the country win or lose? Ford and Smith say the United States won because South Korea remained intact.
Now they want to see it for themselves.
"We leveled it,' said Ford, a former bowling alley owner who was seriously injured in the infamous battle of Chosin Reservoir near China. "I want to see it reconstructed."
Without Kimi Springsteen, this trip wouldn't be happening.
Springsteen, 68, is the Asian-American Affairs liaison for the Hillsborough County Commission and an activist in west central Florida's Korean-American community, numbering an estimated 14,000 people in Tampa Bay alone.
But in 1950, Jong Soon Kim was a 14-year-old girl living in Seoul with her parents, grandparents and six siblings.
The invasion turned her life into a fight for survival. She overcame, and her future would become closely intertwined with war veterans like Ford and Smith.
Despite severe hardships, her family lived. Her father, she believes, would have been killed had the North Koreans found him because he was a staunch anti-communist.
"If they thought people were anti-communist, they just shot them like they were little animals," she said.
After the war's end, Springsteen became a wife, mother, professor and businesswoman. She developed contacts with Korean industrialists through a variety of organizations, which paved the way for a special request.
Those industrialists, working with the U.N. High Command in Seoul, decided to invite veterans who hadn't made it back to South Korea. Springsteen heard about the plans and told an industrialist friend about Hillsborough vets who deserved to go. She got a green light to invite five.
Although Ford and Smith didn't meet until after the war, they came to Korea with similar disdain for the Koreans.
They were sent to a part of the world they knew nothing about, to fight a war no one bothered to explain to them. And they frankly admit sharing prejudices against Asians that were common at the time.
But with every deprivation they witnessed, Ford and Smith identified more and more with the South Koreans.
After the unqualified success of Inchon, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, head of the U.S. forces, committed what historians consider a major gaffe. Thinking the Red Army wouldn't oppose him, he pushed the fighting north to the Chinese border.
MacArthur discovered otherwise. As allied forces arrayed in a thin line along the Yalu River in November 1950, hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers crossed the border, trapping thousands of Marines at Chosin Reservoir. Chosin was in a mountainous region. The winter cold was brutal, Ford recalled.
His Thanksgiving turkey leg froze by the time he got outside the mess hall. Everything froze, including his toes.
To keep the tanks operable, the Marines ran them 15 minutes an hour. Ford had to stick a foot out his sleeping bag to press the pedal. By the time the Marines broke out of Chosin, he had to have three toes amputated.
Today, Smith is a retired yacht builder who lives in Tampa's Forest Hills subdivision. Half a century ago, he arrived in Korea and started with a special Army railroad unit in Taegu. Every day his crew would pick up the dead bodies of desperate people who'd clung to the cars for protection and escape. Some died stuck to the freezing metal.
Smith still was itching for action and got transferred to the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, 7th Regiment. Soon he was enmeshed in the defense of Seoul. For the next three years, the front lines basically remained the same along the so-called "38th Parallel," the site of the current demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.
Smith quickly learned that combat was no fun. "People," he said with a laugh, "kept shooting at me."
At one point, he almost became a prisoner of war, or worse. However, when his two Chinese captors dropped their guard, he grabbed a gun, killed them both and escaped.
Neither Smith nor Ford brag about their war exploits without tempering it with reflection about the horrors of war. They say the battlefield taught them more than about being tough guys.
It shows in their eyes whenever the war comes up, which is every day. They turn reddish and wet.
Smith has never forgotten a dead woman in Taegu. She was so lightly clad it didn't surprise him she succumbed to the winter cold. When soldiers lifted her off the ground, they also found a dead baby underneath, wearing some of her clothes, he said.
"This woman gave her life trying to keep her baby alive," Smith said, wiping away the tears.
The Hillsborough veterans can expect a whirlwind tour. Organizers will give them a hero's transport to memorials, battlefield scenes and state dinners. Hundreds and, in some cases, tens of thousands are expected to attend, Springsteen said.
Korean views of America are largely split generationally, said University of Florida history professor and Cold War expert Robert McMahon. Older South Koreans tend to be more appreciative of the U.S. role in saving the country from communism. Younger South Koreans are more resentful of the ongoing presence of U.S. troops and the Bush Administration's resistance to engaging North Korea on non-military issues.
McMahon said the war had to be fought. "What was at stake was a kind of world order," he said.
The veterans' trip will culminate on July 27, the anniversary of the armistice signing. Ford and Smith will attend ceremonies and visit the Korean War Memorial.
By then, however, their main goal - to see, feel and touch South Korea for themselves - should be accomplished.
In their perhaps not-too-romantic vision, Ford and Smith saved a helpless baby by fighting for South Korea. Now they want to hug the grownup.
"I really owe them my life," Springsteen said. "That's how I really feel."
- Josh Zimmer covers Keystone/Odessa, University North and Citrus Park. He can be reached at 269-5314 or email@example.com