June 6 is Memorial Day, 현충일 (Hyeon-chung-il), in Korea; a day to honor those who have served and, for many, given their lives in defense of Korea. It’s a day to remember not only those of Korean descent who have served, but also those from other countries who have worked to protect Korea. And one of those men was my great-uncle.
Given that Billie died 20 years before I was born, you’d think I’d have no special connection with him. But even before I came to adopt from Korea, I had a fascination with this man I would never know. Growing up I used to spend a few weeks each summer with my grandparents. They lived in a rural area of Oklahoma, and I loved being there to enjoy their garden and just spend time with the greatest grandparents in the world.
In the hall of my grandparents’ home hung a photo of a handsome young man in uniform. The photo and it’s ornate frame were damaged with age, but the photo fascinated me none the less. It greeted me each morning as I went to the kitchen for breakfast. I knew the photo was of my grandfather’s younger brother, and that he was killed in a war. I knew that his mother never believed he died and always thought one day he’d walk through the door. But being young, the details of which war and how he died didn’t really seem important to me.
Then a few years ago I got into genealogy and finally thought to ask my grandparents more about the young soldier. With the information from them, I was able through Internet searches to find out more. Here’s what I learned.
Uncle Billie was part of the Seventh Cavalry Regiment, First Cavalry Division of the Army, one of the first to enter the Korean War. Between mid-August and mid-September 1950, the 7th Cavalry Regiment was defending the Pusan perimeter against the invading North Korean army. Pusan (now romanized as Busan) is located on the southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula, meaning that in a little more than two months, the North Korean army had taken control of almost the entire Republic of Korea.
On September 10th, the 7th Cavalry Regiment was in the Kumho River Valley northeast of the Taegu Airfield. It was here that Uncle Billie, while driving a Jeep, was shot in the head by a sniper. Billie’s body arrived back in Oklahoma, but the family was told that the physical damage was so severe that the casket shouldn’t be open. Because my great-grandmother couldn’t see him for herself, she never fully accepted his death. Billie had just turn 20 years old less than a month before the Korea War began on June 25, 1950.
In September 2006, 56 years after Billie died, his death became even more real to me. As I walked around Seoul, I realized that without men like my uncle–Korean, American, and other Allies–and the sacrifices they made, I likely would not have been able to walk those streets, to take in the Korean culture. And I wondered what would have happened to my son’s Korean family. As we all know, life under the Kim, Il-Sung/Kim, Jong-Il government has not been easy for the people of North Korea.
Korea’s history hasn’t been an easy one. Decades of Japanese occupation, World War II, and the Korean War have left scars both emotional and physical. And that’s just in the last century. So today there’s a lot to remember.
Now that faded photo of Uncle Billie in its ornate frame belongs to me, given to me a few years ago by my grandmother. I cherish it for all it represents to our family. When look at my Korean-born son today I’ll think about Billie and all of those who fought for Korea throughout its history. And when I encounter Korean War veterans, I’ll remember to thank them; their service and sacrifices mean a lot to our family.