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Veterans of the Korean War fear another round of fighting

Selwyn "Buddy" Epstein, who was 20 years old when he found himself fighting in Korea in 1951 as a member of the 3rd Infantry Division's 375th Chemical Smoke Generator Company, discusses with Newsday some of memories about the war -- both the fond and the fearful. (Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara)

Soldiers who fought in the Korean War more than 60 years ago are again concerned by issues of peace and war on that Asian peninsula, where 33,686 Americans died in combat between 1950 and 1953.

Conversations with veterans of that conflict reveal deep anxiety over whether the prosperous South Korean democracy they helped make possible might be reduced to rubble if rising tensions between Washington and North Korea lead to an armed conflict.

“My fear is sacrificing beautiful American boys to another war there,” said Selwyn “Buddy” Epstein, who was 20 years old when he found himself fighting in Korea in 1951 as a member of the 3rd Infantry Division’s 375th Chemical Smoke Generator Company. “Anyone who has ever been in combat would tell you the same thing.”

Epstein, 86, was one of about a dozen members of the blue-jacketed Korean War Veterans Association of Nassau County who attended a luncheon last Monday at Ayhan’s Shish Kebab restaurant in Baldwin to mark the organization’s 25th anniversary. The group, formed in 1992, peaked at 187 members. Its current membership is 93.

Attendees wondered aloud whether a military effort to confront North Korea’s 33-year-old supreme leader Kim Jong Un over violations of United Nations-imposed nuclear arms sanctions is worth the risk of a confrontation. Pyongyang’s push to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the United States mainland has included five nuclear tests and recent firings of long-range rockets.

“I can argue either way whether we should go back to war,” Epstein said. “We’re the greatest power in the world, so should we allow a leader who is unstable to threaten the world with nuclear weapons? We know he is a bad man, but we should first try every means of diplomacy.”

Others at the luncheon spoke for a muscular response.

“I think the guy’s a madman,” said Lawrence O’Leary, 82, of Hicksville, who served in Korea as a Marine corporal. “I don’t like war, but at some point you’ve got to stop people like him.”

War on the Korean Peninsula, a mountainous spit of land that juts into the Sea of Japan, would almost certainly have far graver consequences than it did six decades ago, when the region was an economically stunted agrarian backwater.

South Korea is today the world’s 11th-largest economy. And the capitals of the world’s second- and third-largest economies — China and Japan — are within a few minutes’ flight of North Korean missiles.

“It would be the end of South Korea, and I’d hate to see that,” said John Ha, 83, who was living in Seoul when North Korean forces swept into the city on June 25, 1950, and whose grandmother was shot dead when she peered out of a window as tanks passed in the street.

Ha, who is vice president of the Association’s Central Long Island Chapter, served as an interpreter with the KATUSA — members of the Korean army who were integrated into U.S. Army units.

“We should, we must, settle this diplomatically, so we would not have a confrontation,” said Ha, who moved to the United States after the war. “The Korean people would not just suffer, they would be killed. And for what? I’m very much concerned about that.”

Although the possibility that North Korea might resort to nuclear weapons has caught the world’s attention, several of these veterans pointed out that even an exchange of conventional weapons — much more accurate and powerful than decades ago — could still be devastating.

North Korean artillery is capable of hitting the South Korean capital region, which is home to half of South Korea’s 50 million people.

Perhaps few know the destructive potential of conventional weapons better than Harold Prummell, 86, of Carle Place.

He was serving with a heavy weapons unit of the 23rd Infantry Regiment when a mortar shell misfired inside its launching tube near the 38th parallel. Realizing that vibrations from incoming mortar hits could set off the unexploded shell and kill members of his platoon, Prummell eased the unexploded shell from the tube. His bravery earned him the Bronze Star.

“If it had exploded, I wouldn’t be here talking to you today, and neither would the two guys I was with,” said Prummell, who was 20 then. “But with the North Koreans having an atomic bomb over there, it is a scary situation we’re in.”

Many of Long Island’s Korean War veterans have retained an emotional stake in the land where they spent part of their youth. In the past two decades, dozens have traveled to South Korea to see firsthand the nation they once defended. The Nassau group sends $100 per month to an orphanage in Seoul.

Several of the veterans expressed anger that the once-impoverished nation that is now America’s sixth-largest trading partner could again be forced to its knees by the communist adversary they once helped repulse.

“They did such a beautiful job,” said Charles Bours, 79, commander of the organization’s Nassau chapter, of the American soldiers who fought in Korea. “I don’t want the country to be ruined again.”

Timeline

  • On June 25, 1950, North Korean troops swept south over the 38th parallel. South Korea was quickly routed all the way to Pusan, at the southeastern tip of the peninsula.
  • A United Nations force of 21 countries led by the United States sent troops or supplies to fight on the South Korean side. U.S. troops arrive on July 1, 1950.
  • The fighting went back and forth, with UN forces pushing north of the 38th parallel and almost to the China border. By July 1951, the two sides had reached a stalemate. Despite several infamous battles that ensued — Heartbreak Ridge, Old Baldy, Porkchop Hill — the two sides remained mostly dug in along the original 38th parallel border for the next two years.
  • Peace talks led to the Korean Armistice Agreement on July 27, 1953.

Sources: The U.S. Army, Britannica.com

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