Until last week, Dick Fogel and Chuck Crumbacher remembered South Korea as a poor, war-torn country filled with toppled buildings and rubble.
Sixty years after the longtime DeKalb residents served with the U.S. Army in the Korean War, they had a chance to revisit the country where they helped defend democracy.
They were surprised to see the recovery of the country, which now has cities with bustling six-lane highways, skyscrapers, modern architecture, low crime and low unemployment.
“Considering in 60 years they rebuilt the whole infrastructure of Korea ... it’s amazing what they’ve done,” Fogel said.
The Korean War began in June 1950 after Communist forces from North Korea invaded South Korea. The United States supplied most of the United Nations force that fought to defend South Korea until the armistice in 1953. The fighting claimed the lives of more than 33,000 American soldiers, according to the U.S. Defense Department.
Through the Korean government’s Revisit Program, Crumbacher, 77, and Fogel, 80, joined a group of about 80 veterans from the United States, Turkey, Colombia, Ethiopia and France who were honored for their service in defending South Korea.
The South Korean government covered almost all of the travel expenses for their six-day trip.
Crumbacher and Fogel toured battle grounds, museums and visited the Korea War Memorial in Seoul. They both served in an area between Seoul and Inchon, which is where they visited last week.
Their tour of modern South Korea included a trip to the Demilitarized Zone. It is considered the most heavily defended international border in the world.
During a banquet on the last day, South Korea’s Ministry of
Patriots and Veterans Affairs and the Korean Veterans Association presented them with medals and Ambassador of Peace certificates, which thanked them for “restoring and preserving our freedom and democracy.”
More than 28,000 Korean War veterans have participated in the revisit program since it began in 1975, according to the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs website. The goal of the program is not only to express gratitude for veterans’ service, but also to give them a chance to see “how Korea enjoys peace and prosperity thanks to their noble sacrifices and dedication.”
“They were very appreciative,” Crumbacher said. “It wasn’t faked. It was very sincere on their part. They’re really appreciative of what we’ve done for them.”
“They treated us like royalty over there,” Fogel added.
Crumbacher, who lives in DeKalb with his wife, Mary, worked in communications when he was deployed to South Korea with the Army in 1953. He served there for about a year. Fogel landed in South Korea in 1951, where he worked as an Army mechanic.
He eventually worked his way up to motor sergeant, where he oversaw a fleet of about 100 vehicles. He spent 18 months in South Korea.
Both remember “bed-check Charlies,” bombers that flew over their outfits late at night. They also recall dodging land mines and enduring cold nights that claimed some soldiers’ limbs through frostbite.
Fogel said about a month after he left South Korea in June 1953, the warring countries called for an armistice.
“They figured they couldn’t get me, so they gave it up,” he said with a laugh.
After their Army service ended, both men attended Northern Illinois University on the GI Bill. Both ended up working at NIU, which is where they met. They discovered they were stationed only a few miles apart in South Korea, but served at different times.
Fogel and Crumbacher said they felt fortunate to have served in South Korea, and lucky that they were in the right places at the right times to avoid serious injury.
It wasn’t until last week that Crumbacher realized how big of a difference soldiers made there.
“It seemed kind of insignificant [at the time],” he said. “After the royal treatment, it was like, ‘Gee, I guess that was the right thing to do.’ ”
“I always felt it was my honor to serve,” Fogel said.