SEOUL, South Korea — Korean War veterans, now in their late 70s to early 90s, returned to the “Land of the Morning Calm” to share their experiences firsthand with South Korean college students studying the war, and to be recognized for their service.
Korean and American veterans visited many sites, including the Joint Security Area, where North and South Korean soldiers face each other across a military demarcation line, and where representatives from the United Nations Command meet with representatives from the North Korean People’s Army in small, temporary buildings that straddle the line.
South Korea’s Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs, in cooperation with the Korean Veterans Association and U.S. Forces Korea, conducted a “Revisit Korea” trip from June 24-28, for American and overseas’ Korean veterans of the Korean War. Korean War Veterans Association representatives from 21 nations also participated in the Revisit Korea program.
Arden A. Rowley, who served in all ten Korean War campaigns until he became a prisoner of war from Dec. 1, 1950, to Aug. 18, 1953, returned to Korea with his grandson, Miller Rowley for the five-day trip.
From the Bridge of No Return, Rowley discussed his experience as a POW in North Korea with students and members of the Korean media. After the Armistice was signed, Rowley was brought across the bridge back into South Korea.
“I was actually a driver,” said Rowley. “I drove a Jeep, quarter-ton utility vehicle. I drove my platoon leader, and he was a first lieutenant. Finally (the Jeep) got destroyed in the convoy … on the night of Nov. 30, 1950. We had to abandon all of our equipment, leave and the Air Force took care of that whole convoy and destroyed it. Two days after I was a POW, we were walking and it was snowing; we walked right back by our convoy and I saw my Jeep burned to a crisp. As we walked by as POWs, it was a nostalgic situation, ‘cause I’d been through a lot of experiences with that Jeep. It got wrecked twice and then we had to repair it and fix it; (we) lost it in the middle of the Chongchon River in that battle of the Chongchon River — it got flooded out because it wasn’t waterproof. We left her right in the middle of the river, jumped on a deuce-and-a-half, finished our journey and two days later some GI’s were driving that thing past me, and I said ‘Whoa, Stop! That’s my Jeep!” and I took possession of my Jeep again.”
As a POW, Rowley said he was subjected to constant attempts at indoctrination from Chinese and North Korean agents.
“During my captivity, we experienced about a 16-month heavy-indoctrination period where the Chinese brought in English-speaking instructors and tried to convince us that (Karl) Marx and (Joseph) Stalin and Mao Zedong were great, and people like our president and so forth were a bunch of bandits,” said Rowley. “And that free enterprise or Capitalism is no good and Communism was the only thing really worth living for. We resisted the indoctrination quite well. If there was any torture it was mental torture. They didn’t torture us physically because they tried to convince us that Communism is great. They can’t beat a guy half-to-death and convince him that their way of life is the very best thing for humanity. So it was a situation where we just got sick and tired of the lectures finally and we told them to go to hell. And the lectures finally gave up; they finally stopped after about 16 months of this program.”
The experience convinced Rowley of the importance of Democracy, and defending the Republic of Korea from the Chinese and North Korean invasion.
“Our way of life – the freedoms that we have – is really, really worth it,” Rowley said, who gained an Army commission three years after gaining his freedom, and eventually retired as a major.
Besides the Bridge of No Return, and the Joint Security Area, veterans and their student escorts also visited Observation Post Dora and Imjingak, a small resort area in Paju, South Korea, with statues and monuments of the war. Without student escorts, the veterans also visited the War Memorial of Korea and Seoul National Cemetery, and were honored during a private dinner and reception.
The Revisit Korea program is a somber and emotional experience, said Stephen Tharp, chief, Strategic Outreach, USFK.
“I have been honored to be part of this program for the last seven years, both in providing them a briefing on the Korean security situation since they left, and through organizing the Students Meet Veterans Program,” said Tharp. “This student-veteran segment is one of the best things about the entire program. The students get an oral history from their American ‘halabojee,’ (grandfather), someone who fought here during the Korea War. The veterans also gain a great deal as they see the value of their sacrifice and that of their comrades while conversing with these bright young and industrious Korean students. When it's over at the end of the day, the students cry, the veterans cry and I cry.”
Retired Lt. Col. William “Frank” Armfield, an Army aviator who flew the Stinson L-5 Sentinel during the Korean War, recounted his experiences to his Korean escort of flying reconnaissance missions along the 38th Parallel, and being shot down over Seoul. Armfield said he had no regrets.
“I’d do it again if they needed me – let’s hope it doesn’t get that bad,” said Armfield.
Armfield recounted a memory that stood out from his time in Korea, after training South Korean pilots.
“We gave the South Koreans eight L-5s,” said Armfield. “I remember one South Korean official at the ceremony saying ‘This is the birth of the South Korean Air Force.’”
Many of the veterans were amazed at the progress South Korea has made economically and in infrastructure. The poor, devastated war-torn country that veterans left behind is now a modern nation, with highways, skyscrapers, subways and high-speed rail.
Rowley said seeing the progress South Korea has made was “fabulous.”
“That’s a good word to describe it,” Rowley said. “A miracle took place over the last 60 years, and I’m honored to have been a part of it.”