Monday, July 04, 2011

Return to Korea: Veteran puts aside stark memories, has life-changing experience

http://www.postandcourier.com/news/2011/jul/04/return-to-korea/


MOUNT PLEASANT -- The letter arrived out of the past, addressed to former G.I. William Graver.

In a one-page note, the government of South Korea told Graver he was a hero and the country wanted to recognize his service fighting there in 1953. They were offering a flight back to Korea where he would join other aging soldiers as national guests.

"We hope that you will see what you made possible," the kind note said. "And hope that your families will feel renewed pride in what you did for us many years ago."



Korean War veteran William Graver, a volunteer on the Yorktown at Patriots Point, shows the medallion and proclamations from the Republic of Korea thanking him for his service during the Korean War.



The medallion and proclamations from the Republic of Korea thanking Korean War veteran William Graver for his service during the Korean War.

Graver, now an 83-year-old retiree, agreed to go. Trouble was, the closer his departure date neared, the more jumpy and reluctant he became. "I was just up at nights thinking of stuff I hadn't thought of in years," Graver said of his recurring battlefield memories.

While debating whether to board the plane, his wife, Jeanette, intervened. "Go on over there and get it off your mind," she told him.

Her advice was dead-on.

Graver described his return to something akin to "cleansing for the soul." Especially gratifying was being immersed with other Korean War veterans, men who just like him had kept much of what they'd seen during the 1950-53 fighting bottled up inside.

"I've talked about it more in the last week than I have in the last 60 years."

Graver was part of a little-known recognition annually funded by the South Korean government. Since 1975, the country has sponsored the return of tens of thousands of former United Nations soldiers from nearly two dozen countries as part of a national thank-you.

Graver, originally from Allentown, Pa., was a draftee who entered the U.S. Army full of Audie Murphy-style patriotism. For much of his time in Korea, the 21-year-old 2nd lieutenant was repeatedly shuffled around the peninsula where his unit was used to fill in weak points against enemy attack. His memories of what he saw in Korea remain stark: towering mountains, severe biting cold and gunfire. After 14 months, Graver ended his deployment on a South Korean island used to house more than 20,000 North Korean and Chinese prisoners of war.

Graver returned home and got on with his life. But he kept the stories of his service mostly a secret. Many Americans gave soldiers a harsh welcome at the time amid anti-war sentiments. Graver wanted no part of it.

On his return to Korea after a 15-hour flight, Graver said he was overcome by how much had changed in 60 years. The thriving capital city of Seoul "is so modern and so clean, it is unbelievable," he said. "When I was there it was a series of temporary shacks along the river."

While mixing it up with the 45 or so other veterans on the trip, Graver also said he learned that they, too, had been mostly reluctant to speak about their experience. But as tongues began to loosen, many in the group seemed emotionally relieved to start talking about their memories, unloading years of burdens.

"I think the camaraderie is what did it. We were with our 'own' people."

Graver said his initial reluctance to visit South Korea came largely from his combat memories. "Operations that went wrong where a couple guys got hurt," he said. "Guys that you know."

The blow was particularly tough since he was their unit commander.

Graver's visit included tours and banquets, and a stop in Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, facing a still-hostile North Korea.

"No expense was spared," he said of the five-day visit. There also was a trip to a national cemetery containing the graves of 7,000 war dead. Random strangers approached Graver and his group, passing out hugs and handshakes.

William F. Mac Swain, of Benbrook, Texas, president of the Korean War Veterans Association (which supplies names for the Korea exchange program), said both sides see benefits. South Korea gets to show that it "has really done something with the freedom that the war won for them," he said. For the U.S. veterans, "what is emotional is that you do find out what you did in Korea was something that was important to the world."
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South Carolina still has a large population of Korean War veterans, numbering some 48,000, many of whom arrived as retirees from elsewhere. By comparison, the state is home to about 40,000 survivors from World War II.

Graver expects more people from the state to get invitations from the South Korean government. His advice? "Do it. You'll get an experience you can never duplicate."

That's especially true because time is catching up with so many. At 83, the trip probably marked "the last ceremony on the Korean War that I will attend," he said.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.