WAEGWAN, South Korea - The old soldier stood on the riverbank, his cane at his side, a baseball cap emblazoned "2nd Infantry Division" above his brow. He looked out, then turned away from the slow, silty Naktong.
"I've seen this river before," Carroll Garland said. "I don't want to remember. Too many memories."
The war that began in Korea 60 years ago, on June 25, 1950, a ghastly conflict that killed millions and left the peninsula in ruins, became "The Forgotten War" in many American minds.
To a shrinking corps of aging men, however, the soldiers of Korea 1950-53, it can never be forgotten. It damaged many physically and mentally, and left men questioning their commanders' and their nation's wisdom.
Remembering Korea today may be painful, as ex-Sgt. Garland, 81, of Oxon Hill, Md., can attest. In a wartime arc of desperation, triumph, retreat and final stalemate in Korea, no U.S. division sacrificed as much as the 2nd Infantry Division, with more than 7,000 killed, one-fifth of total U.S. dead. And it is the 2nd that still stands guard over South Korea today.
Two days spent with a "2nd ID" group on a 60th-anniversary visit to old battlefields opened a window on the men and events of a lifetime ago, when what happened here was nothing less than a pivotal turn in 20th-century history, when a cold war grew hot in America's confrontation with communism.
After the communist-led northerners struck south in their surprise invasion on June 25, two years after U.S. combat units withdrew from South Korea, U.S. commanders believed the simple reappearance of American troops would deter the North Koreans.
The northern army battered the first-arriving U.S. units and shattered the South Korean divisions. It simply was better trained and better equipped.
The North Koreans, crossing the shallow Naktong at night on barges or over underwater "bridges" built of rice bags filled with rocks, hammered again and again at the United States and South Korean lines in August and early September 1950.
"We did what we had to do. We kept them out," twice-wounded ex-rifleman Henry Reed, 78, of Butte, Mont., said of the Naktong campaign. "But we suffered plenty. In the first month, my company" - A Company, 23rd Infantry Regiment - "went down to 78 men from 200."
More suffering lay ahead. The lunge north had been ill-conceived, putting the American army on a collision course with the might of China deep inside North Korea. Chinese attacks all along the front forced the longest retreat in U.S. military history, a withdrawal by the entire U.S. 8th Army some 160 miles back into South Korea.
In February 1951, the Chinese mounted an all-out offensive but were turned back at Chipyong-ni by the 2nd Division, ushering in a final long phase of the war.
It was at Heartbreak Ridge, in September 1951, that "we got into trouble, when we tried to move north," recalled Ed Reeg, ex-machine gunner with the 23rd Infantry. North Koreans were charging out of the darkness along the ridgeline. Reeg's team tried to hold them off, but finally "they found the mark," a bullet hitting him above the hip.
This May 31, Reeg, 82, of Dubuque, Iowa, stood with his wife and son atop a ridgeline south of Korea's dividing Demilitarized Zone and looked out toward Heartbreak. "To think we were so close to where I lay dying 59 years ago," he reflected later. "I never thought I'd get back here."