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Memorial beckons to Forgotten War

The ghosts plod onward and stare from the walls of a monument to a war a half-world and a half-century away.

Published July 26, 2003

[AP photos]
President Bush paid a brief visit to the Korean War Veterans Memorial on Friday, two days before the 50th anniversary of the armistice.

Jim Troutman of Reading, Pa., who served with the 1st Marine Division in Korea from 1950 to 1952, pauses before the Korean War Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON - Wednesday afternoon, the Harris brothers buried their mother beside their father in Arlington Cemetery. Then they walked to the one place in Washington that seemed the right place to think about the lost souls in their family.

Lloyd and Jerry ambled past the Lincoln Memorial until they saw the tops of steel gray helmets in a clearing: 19 huge stainless steel men, icons from the Korean War, frozen mid march. Their ponchos flickered as they grasped their weapons en route toward a flying American flag.

Just beyond the troops they found a reflecting pool surrounded by linden trees and to the right, a long wall of buffed black granite with the ghostly images of their radio operators, MASH units, chaplains and mine clearers. Another wall proclaimed, "Freedom is not free."

Their father, a career Army man who had been stationed in Korea in 1953, ladled food to the troops for a year while his wife and three sons waited in New Jersey. Lloyd and Jerry Harris knew they were supposed to be stirred by the memorial. Instead the two sons felt ... nothing.

"I don't have a sense of a cohesive whole with a strategy, a mission," said Lloyd Harris, 59, of Edison, N.J."Can I find my father here? I don't think so."

Sunday, thousands of veterans and citizens may try to find someone at the memorial when they gather to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the war's armistice and remember the more than 54,000 Americans who died during the war. For many, the cohesion will come from one another, a satisfaction in having a central place for the veterans to draw together. Others will find that the 8-year-old memorial mirrors the war it illustrates - messy, confusing, invisible, easily forgotten.

The $18-million Korean memorial was hobbled by controversy from the start. A team of Pennsylvania State University architects and landscape artists designed the initial plan. The plans were then altered considerably by review committees and federal agencies. Incensed, the team dropped out and sued in federal court, only to lose.

At the dedication in 1995, architecture critics derided the finished product for its lack of grandeur and unity. Today, visitors seem dazzled by the sweep of the marching men, but puzzled by the black strips of granite between statues and the wall that seems to be a coy copy of the nearby Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

There are many competing attractions on the National Mall, and the Korean War Veterans Memorial can be an afterthought that many tourists skip. The National Park Service says it drew 2.7-million visitors last year, while the Vietnam memorial drew 3.3-million, though they are a 10-minute walk from one another.

"Every memorial - all - have some elements of controversy," said Mike Conley, spokesman for the American Battle Monuments Commission, now overseeing the creation of a World War II memorial. "The Vietnam War memorial was a cruelly criticized memorial. Now it's the most-visited memorial on the Mall."

The Korean tribute will, in time, he said, become an integral part of the area.

It may remain abstract for younger visitors.

"Two hundred thousand! That's a lot of tears!" exclaimed Diane Clark of Novi, Mich., the wife of that city's mayor. She was reading the lists of the dead and wounded inscribed on a low wall next to the pool. Her 8-year-old grandson, Alexander Wassom, was disinterested in the number of South Korean casualties and swiveled over to the granite wall to sound out and trace the words: "Freedom is not free."

"What does that mean?" Clark pestered. "What is freedom?"

The tow-headed child tried to scoot away.

"Freedom is living in this country and growing up and becoming a dentist and having a family!" she said.

The child seemed no clearer: "And who pays for freedom?"

"We do?" he offered, squinting.

"The soldiers do!" she corrected. Then, moments later, as the boy darted away: "You're going to be tested!"

Another family scanned the wall of photographs and walked toward the sun that had slipped behind the Lincoln Memorial.

Peter Lee, a Rhode Island engineer, emigrated from Korea as a 22-year-old student in 1978. He had brought along his daughter, young nephews and his aunt, visiting from Korea. The memorial's images clearly had troubled him.

"I'd hope we'd learn from history, so this wouldn't happen again. But unfortunately it's still happening," Lee said, referring to the war in Iraq.

Lee's father had fought in the Korean war alongside the Americans.

"He was lucky he survived," Lee said.

After most U.S. soldiers left Korea, Lee's family struggled for 10 years to regain their footing. For a while they had no house. An older brother died at age 1 from malnutrition.

"Everyone's a victim of war. We should learn from history," he said, his voice very quiet. "People don't see it."

[Last modified July 26, 2003, 02:18:07]

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