Following in the footsteps of 1st Lieutenant John R. Preston
07.08.2013 - 07.08.2013 90 °F
Several weeks ago, I began a series of emails to set up a tour of the Demilitarized Zone just northwest of Seoul. A number of outfits offered this kind of tour but Bruce and I chose the USO because they had a good reputation, and I figured that they would have a more US military bent to their emphasis because of the USO connection. The tour is run by Koridoor Tours for the USO and the tour guide, Brendan, had been one of two people I had been exchanging emails with. Here is Brendan explaining one of the maps on our tour.
I had very strange vibes as we prepared to enter the DMZ for this tour. Dad had only just begun to open up a little about his experiences in Korea before he passed suddenly in 1990. There were so many questions that his history-teaching son wanted answers to! Over the last few weeks, in preparation for this trip, I had been reading some of his letters for the first time. I thought, with the help of Google Earth, that I had a pretty good handle on where he was in combat for much of his tour. It helped that he had kept one of his operational maps from his time there in charge of an artillery battery. Near the end of his tour, he was a military adviser to the Korean Marine Corps. This will come into play later in our story...
I know that he, along with others who had served in the Korean War, had been invited to come back and visit Korea, but he had no interest. I think there were many reasons, but it was only in the last few years I realized that there were demons there that he didn't care to resurrect. So, Bruce and I decided when we planned this trip that we would take a day in Seoul to go see some of the places where dad served. Many of his letters contain little hand drawn maps, some of them placing his patrols behind the Chinese lines. Now, we would go...his history-teaching son and his son who was born while he was fighting a war in these areas! It's amazing to see what Seoul has become in the 60 years (almost to the month) since the 1953 armistice was signed. The capital city was captured and recaptured 3 times in the war. Some of the pictures on the walls of the USO reflect the state of destruction in 1950 Seoul; and there were two more destructive battles to be fought there still!
Today, the city's main environs boast a population of over 25 million, and many major corporations (Samsung, KIA and Hyundai Motors stand out) call Seoul their home. The city would be unrecognizable to dad, all the rubble is gone and Seoul is bustling...Gangnam style! We started our day with one of the few places that seemed open at 7am (and that's a general time for when they opened) since we had an 8 am tour time. It's Dunkin' Donuts. Are we in Boston? Um...this ain't Boston creme!
Then it was off to the tour! My little cards came in handy as I handed the taxi driver a card that asked him to take us to the USO...in Korean. This had been sent to me by the kind folks at Kohidoor and worked like a charm. 7,500 Korean Won later(@ $7), we were there!
Our first stop was the Imjingak Peace Park. People were hoping that reunification was on the near horizon in 2002. More about that later. At the park, is a memorial to the fallen from the war. Also, there is the remains of a locomotive riddled with shrapnel during the attacks on the bridge, and the new bridge is right next to the remains of one of the destroyed bridges. When the fighting ended in 1953, over 12, 000 POWs were returned at a hastily built wooden bridge constructed on the pilings of a destroyed structure. Today, that bridge is known as the Bridge of Freedom, and it's midpoint, where you can't go further without cheesing off the Norks, is a wall full of wishes for peace, memorials to the fallen, and pleas from those who have relatives trapped in the North.
Our second stop would be my most challenging. In the 1970s, the Norks (North Koreans) had dug (actually blasted with dynamite) a number of tunnels through the granite underneath the ground (350 feet deep. This was no "Great Escape"; and it wasn't the "coal mining" operation that they lamely maintained.) The Third one has become a tourist site. The ROK government (Republic of Korea - south; as opposed to the People's Democratic Republic of Korea - North) used a massive diamond bit drill to create an intersecting tunnel in order to allow tourists to walk through parts of this infiltration tunnel. It kind of explains what, to the uninformed citizens of the world find puzzling, the South Koreans palpable distrust of the Norks. They know the North is capable of some pretty squirrely behavior (Dennis Rodman notwithstanding). So you see miles of barbed wire and armed outposts over large areas of rivers, even if they aren't right by the border.
This tunnel was at an extreme angle, making descending and ascending very challenging. Also, most Koreans are not as tall as Bruce and Keith, so the tunnel averages around 5' 1" in height. The Norks would have come through four abreast, so that an estimated 30,000 soldiers an hour could have emerged before they would be discovered. So there we are, walking down at steep angled tunnel for 350 meters, in order to bend over through 300 meters of rough granite tunneling. You have to wear a hard hat to tour this. Good thing; I would have been unconscious after 2 minutes. This tunnel has a reputation for being extremely strenuous, so I had been swimming to get in shape for it. It's a good thing. I had to stop for a while a few times on the way up. No pictures are allowed, so I have none to put in here. Sorry folks.
After the tunnel, we went to see a short film explaining the DMZ as a result of the armistice of 1953, and then went to the Dora Observatory...and had the thrill of the trip so far. At the top of the Observatory, there is this plaque:
The point is in the bottom third of the plaque: This was a hill held by the KMC...right next to Hill 122, also known as "Bunker Hill". My dad wrote a lot about his action on Bunker Hill, and if you scroll to his map up top, you can see where he wrote "Bunker Hill" in blue letters. Later on, he was attached as an adviser to the KMC, and spent a lot of time on Hill 155...where we were standing. As a history teacher, I'm a great advocate of going to the ground to understand battles. But this was personal; and quite exhilarating.
Again, the closest I could get with a camera was a shot quite a bit back from the crest of the hill, where dad's bunkers would have had a view of the entire enemy line (and the main reason they had to fight back so many attempts by the Chinese to take the hill, as the plaque spells out) I imagined the many hours, related in his letters to mom that I've been reading, where dad and Lt. Kim, his KMC counterpart, discussed their dreams for the future. I'm not sure they could have imagined the South Korea we have seen today. He certainly couldn't have imagined his sons going back to China in their quest to connect Bruce's adopted daughters with their heritage! It was a really fun moment for me, and a very happy one because I knew my dad to be a kind, forgiving, and perceptive man. He would have appreciated my delight at my thrill of this family history and historical location.
We headed to the nearby Dorasan Transit Center to see the beautiful train station. Many South Koreans hoped this station would someday be used in a unified Korea. Alas, with the exception of a few minor pilot programs, it's an expensive testimony to the continued silliness of the North Korean penchant for saber-rattling and unpredictability. A short video of us at the station is here:
With that, we headed back to the USO, using my little laminated cards to get a taxi back to the Hotel PJ (we discovered it stands for "prestige & joy"), and had our first authentic Korean food. The girls had pasta in a bread bowl (like soup in a bowl...but not soup!) and Bruce and I had bimimbap. It's kind of beef, with noodles, vegetables, and other unidentified organic matter. I kid...it was delicious, though spicy enough to make my nose run, but not enough to cause discomfort. We paid our fare and headed up to our rooms to relax; it's been a pretty busy 48 hours. As I write this, Bruce has finished his blogging for the day and is restructuring his luggage. He's resisting a nap, because we need to go to bed early, but later than now to prevent being wide awake at 2:00 am or something! We need to leave for the airport around 5:00 am tomorrow to catch our 8:10 am flight to Hong Kong. Both girls have collapsed (Laurie first, Hayley fought it, but lost ) And Uncle Keith will go back over this for a while and retire to his room and repack his stuff...or something. I don't know. It's almost 7:00PM here, and I should hit the sack no later than 10:00.
I will look forward to picking this up tomorrow evening, local time, at the Kowloon Hotel in Hong Kong. Hopefully, by then, we will pics of the city and the Victoria Peak!