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Armistice Commemoration
Sharing a Half-Century Salute
Korean War Veterans Descend on Mall for Armistice Commemoration

By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 28, 2003; Page B01

Fifty years to the day after two stony-faced generals signed the armistice that brought the Korean War to an uneasy cease-fire, American veterans once sent to fight on the faraway peninsula gathered on a grassy wedge of the Mall to receive their nation's gratitude for that service and sacrifice.

Several thousand veterans, their stride slowed, their posture sometimes stooped, heard Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz talk of how "the face of Asia was changed dramatically for the better" by the battles that pushed back communist North Korea after it invaded its southern neighbor in a surprise attack. Many applauded as Wolfowitz announced renewed effort to locate the remains of the more than 8,000 Americans officially listed as missing in action from the three-year conflict.

"The Korean War will not end for us until every American is brought home or accounted for," he said.

The simple commemoration allowed, before and after, for countless individual reunions of former comrades. It also offered opportunities for picture-taking with uniformed members of the South Korean military. The veterans saluted, shook hands, identified their commands. The visitors posed in group shot after group shot.

"It's very, very touching," said Lt. Col. Yikon Kim, who came to the United States in 2000 to help plan events marking the 50th anniversary of the war. The mission carried much personal significance; Kim's grandparents had been forced to flee repeatedly as the communists encroached, and his father enlisted at 18 in the South Korean military. But without the Americans' support, how different the outcome would have been, he said.

"They were here for my country and my people," Kim said, surveying the crowd. "I give them deep appreciation and respect."

The day's tone, more somber than celebratory, seemed apropos of a war in which the fighting ended but the war did not. After three years, one month and two days of fighting -- which killed 33,651 U.S. soldiers, more than half the number of South Korean casualties -- the combatants agreed to pull back to their respective sides of the 38th Parallel and establish a demilitarized zone that exists to this day.

Just south of that, not far from what remains the world's most heavily defended frontier, another ceremony was held yesterday in the village of Panmunjom. It was there that the cease-fire was signed at 10 a.m. on July 27, 1953. It took effect 12 hours later, and deadly fighting continued until nearly the last possible moment.

The front page of The Washington Post that day proclaimed "Truce in Korea" and reported how Lt. Gen. William K. Harrison Jr., of the United Nations Command, and North Korean Gen. Nam Il had "signed in silence 18 pieces of paper that converted the 37-month Korean war into an uneasy armistice."

At the time, stories warned that their meeting did not guarantee peace or even an early withdrawal of American forces. More than 36,000 U.S. troops still are stationed in South Korea, and internal and external crises have flared repeatedly, most recently over North Korea's threat to develop nuclear weapons.

That threat was alluded to in speeches and conversations on the Mall. But for men now in their 70s, the focus was on events far more distant: The desperate stands or assaults, the places where buddies were killed. On the ground, on Pork Chop Hill, along Heartbreak Ridge. In the air, in the skies over northwestern Korea that became known as Mig Alley.

"I had a very, very close friend get killed five hours before the cease-fire," said Sal Scarlato, who rode from Bayport, N.Y., with nearly three dozen members of the Central Long Island Chapter of the Korean War Veterans Association. The former Marine was himself wounded, and he hasn't given up on finding the pilot who flew him out.

"He kept giving me the thumbs-up. I was shot up with morphine, and I kept going in and out. When we landed, he said, 'I'm awfully sorry I gave you a bumpy ride,' " Scarlato recounted. "I was 19 at the time. That was 100 years ago."

Elsewhere in the crowd, John A. Gracia, of Clearwater, Fla., was searching, too. "Seventh Division," he told another veteran. There'd never been a question of Gracia not coming. "I had to be here. I'm proud of what we did."

It was all over in an hour, the playing of taps followed by the thunderous fly over of four F-16s. The jets disappeared within moments into the overcast sky. The aging veterans, some accompanied by wives and grown children, began heading along a clogged pathway toward the nearby Korean War Memorial and its haunting statues of gaunt-faced fighters.

Albert Schneider lingered a long time, staring hard -- it was his first time seeing them. One statue, frozen in weary mid-stumble, caught his attention. "You can almost see the whole war going across his mind," Schneider said.

The retired Kentucky truck driver served 13 months in Korea, "the most memorable 13 months of my life," he said. Barely 21 then, he and his field artillery battalion survived an enemy assault targeting them with 2,500 rounds.

"It's a part of you you leave in Korea," he said, his voice muted, his thoughts far away. "You remember it the rest of your life." 2003 The Washington Post Company