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Veterans look back with pride

They say the Korean War was an important stand for freedom. They also wonder what would be different had they pushed on farther north.

ROBERT KING
Published July 27, 2003

SPRING HILL - Lou Schneider went back to South Korea four years ago to see what had become of the country he and other Americans had rescued from invading communists decades earlier.

He was gratified to see how the country had been rebuilt. Even more encouraging was the response he received from grateful South Koreans.

"Walking down the streets of Seoul, complete strangers would come up to you and bow and say, "Thank you for what you have done,"' said Schneider, an Army veteran now living in Spring Hill. "I think we did the right thing being there. I think we stopped aggression."

Local veterans who fought in the Korean War, which ended 50 years ago today, say the war they fought was not only important to preserve the freedom of South Koreans but also made a statement about America's willingness to stand for freedom elsewhere.

"Communism was advancing around the whole world," said Richard Mellinger, a Spring Hill man who was a Navy Seabee in Korea. "I think if we didn't stop it, there was no telling how far it would have advanced."

In 1950, the United States and the Soviet Union - allies during World War II - were locked in a power struggle that would linger for another 40 years.

So when North Korean communist forces invaded South Korea, a democratic country backed by the United States, more was at stake than land on the Korean peninsula.

In the end, after three years of back-and-forth fighting, the war ended it where it began, with the communists pushed back north of the 38th parallel, the latitude that had originally divided the countries at the war's outset.

"Personally, I think we were doing a great service for the Koreans and keeping the communists from spreading all the way across Korea," said Albert Korringa Sr., a Spring Hill man who served in the Army in Korea.

It is tempting for the veterans to wonder what would have happened had President Harry Truman given Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the United Nations forces in Korea early in the war, freedom to take the war into China when he had the communists on the run.

They generally agree that it would have been costly in terms of the number of Americans who would have died. And they don't discount the possibility that it might have sparked World War III with China and Russia. But they also wonder if, in the end, the communists might have been driven from Korea once and for all.

"I believe we stopped communism in its tracks," said John McMillan, a Navy radioman in Korea who now lives in Spring Hill. "Unfortunately, it wasn't finished because the government, if you will, told us to stop."

McMillan said it is possible the Chinese, respecting our nuclear dominance at the time, would have backed down, despite their massive army. He wonders if such an outcome might have prevented an even bloodier war that would begin a decade later.

"If we had stopped them in Korea," McMillan said, "I think we would have stopped Vietnam from even happening."

Today, North and South Korea remain divided.

And lately, North Korea has been making noises like it is once again willing to pursue an aggressive posture toward its neighbor to the south. It has even developed its own nuclear weapons that are capable of reaching the United States.

Mellinger looks at the trouble North Korea is causing now and, like McMillan, wonders if the current problems there might have been avoided, too.

"If they would have listened to MacArthur, we wouldn't have had a problem. We would have had North Korea, too," he said. "The Chinese were already in the war. Nobody wanted to admit it."

After having fought to a stalemate in a conflict that wouldn't officially be declared a war until years later, veterans of Korea returned home to different welcomes. Some were met with parades, others with little fanfare.

McMillan went on to work in Massachusetts for the defense contractor Raytheon. Schneider went back to his family's cheese factory in Wisconsin. Mellinger had a couple of jobs before embarking on a long career with an Illinois school district. Korringa came back and became a truck driver, crisscrossing the roads of the Midwest.

After Vietnam began to consume the country's attention, Korea faded into history. For decades, Korean War veterans got little recognition. Some couldn't even gain entrance into their local Veterans of Foreign Wars halls.

But the recognition they have received in the months leading up to the 50th anniversary of the war's end has done much to shed light on what has been called "The Forgotten War."

"It was a forgotten war," McMillan said. "It is not forgotten anymore."

- Robert King covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to rking@sptimes.com

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