When America ended its war with North Korea 60 years ago Saturday, Joe Iavaroni, 82, was among the first to know it.
That's because the Seaford retiree had been aboard the Air Force plane that ferried Lt. Gen. William Harrison to and from the Korean peninsula for Harrison's July 27, 1953, signing of the armistice. With a stroke of a pen, the Korean War's three years of carnage had ended.
"He came into the galley of the plane and said it was all over," Iavaroni said. He said the news made him so happy that he offered to make the general a celebratory lunch of Spam sandwiches and Coke.
"I was elated," recalled Iavaroni, a Brooklyn enlistee and staff sergeant at the time. "I just blurted out 'General, you've made a lot of mothers very happy.' "
The Korean War, which ran from the June 25, 1950, invasion of South Korea by North Korea until the July 27, 1953, armistice, ranks among America's most intense conflicts. Nearly 1.8 million Americans fought on the narrow Korean peninsula, badly outnumbered by a combined force of Soviet-backed North Korean and Chinese troops.
Casualties were high, as lightning infantry strikes hardened into trench warfare. Adding to soldiers' misery, the peninsula's arctic winters made the bitter cold and frostbite fearsome enemies.
"We could always tell when there was a major push because of all the casualties that would come through," said Iavaroni, who spent most of the war stationed with the 6003 Base Flight Squadron near a military hospital outside of Tokyo, Japan. "The activity, the ambulances, it certainly affected me."
The Asian conflict became regarded as a forgotten war by Americans more eager to embrace World War II's clear-cut victory. Nonetheless, many Korean War veterans voice an intense pride in their contributions.
Donald Zoeller, Nassau County commander of the Korean War Veterans of America, said he regards the war as a turning point for the nation, serving notice that the United States would not stand aside as weaker nations were attacked by totalitarian regimes.
"The Soviet Union was pressing to have that happen all over the world," said Zoeller, of Oyster Bay, a former Army lieutenant who served 13 months in Korea. "So I agreed we should step in and try to stop it. We showed it could be done."
Iavaroni said that although his view of the war had been less enthusiastic when he was a new recruit, he has grown to appreciate America's involvement in the Korean War with the passage of time.
"Being a 22-year-old then, I probably used some guttural expressions . . . [about what] are we doing here," he said.
"But once I looked back, I realized that it had been another incursion on people's freedom," he said. "I could see it was very important what we did there."