SAN DIEGO – It’s been almost 60 years since James McEachin returned home with a bullet still lodged in his chest, finding an America indifferent toward the troops who fought in Korea. Now he will get the homecoming parade he had expected.
The Defense Department for the first time will put a float in Pasadena’s Tournament of Roses – one of the most watched parades – to commemorate the veterans from a conflict that still casts a shadow over the world.
“I think it’s a magnificent gesture and it cures a lot of ills,” said McEachin, who will be among six veterans who will ride on the float today. The 82-year-old author and actor starred in Perry Mason TV movies, among other things.
The $247,000 flower-covered float will be a replica of the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The Pentagon’s debut comes ahead of events marking the 60th anniversary of the July 1953 armistice that halted the bloodshed but did not declare peace.
Col. David Clark said the Pentagon decided to seize the opportunity to sponsor one of the 42 floats in the 124-year-old New Year’s Day parade to raise awareness about what has been called “The Forgotten War.”
It has taken decades for the success of the war’s efforts to be recognized, and the department wanted to remind Americans about the sacrifices that were made by the veterans, most of whom are now in their 80s, Clark said.
The war resulted in South Korea developing into a thriving democratic ally in sharp contrast to its bitterly poor, communist neighbor that is seen as a global threat.
“As a nation, this may be our last opportunity to say ‘thank you’ to them and honor their service,” said Clark, director of the department’s 60th Anniversary of the Korean War Commemoration Committee.
The war began when North Korea invaded the South to try to reunify the nation, a liberated Japanese colony sliced in two in 1945 by the U.S. and Soviet victors of World War II.
North Korea had the upper hand at first, almost pushing a weak South Korean-U.S. force off the peninsula, but then U.S. reinforcements poured in and pushed them back.
Then, in late 1950, communist China stepped in and the Americans and South Koreans were forced back to the peninsula’s midsection. The two sides battled there for two years before ending with a stalemate.
“We didn’t march home in victory. We did what we were supposed to do, which is stop this aggressive force called communism,” said McEachin, a Silver Star recipient.
Edward Chang, director of the Young Oak Kim Center for Korean American Studies at the University of California, Riverside, said U.S. intervention gave South Korea the opportunity to become one of the world’s major economies.
“Most Americans simply are not aware of what is happening in Korea and how it happened,” he said.
More than 36,000 U.S. service members were killed in the conflict, and millions overall.
The government did not talk to troops at the time about how pivotal the war was in stopping communism. After the victory in World War II, the Korean conflict seemed to almost provoke shame for Americans, McEachin said.
The American public also felt no connection to the fighting in a faraway Asian country unlike during World War II when airwaves filled with patriotic fight songs, he said.
McEachin not only returned to indifference but discrimination as an African American soldier.
After the plane carrying returning troops was delayed in Montana by snow, he was turned away from a hotel where his fellow white soldiers were staying.
Korea was the first conflict in which all U.S. military units were integrated racially. Clark said the float’s veterans reflect that important historical milestone.
Clark said it’s important Americans learn the war’s history because the problem is ever present, a point driven home by the heavily mined armistice line, a 4-kilometer-wide (2.5-mile-wide) demilitarized strip stretching 220 kilometers (135 miles) across the peninsula.
“This serves as a reminder that there is unfinished business on the Korean peninsula,” he said.