DeKALB – Clifford Seldal’s voice shakes, and he almost weeps as he recalls watching prisoners of war return to South Korea from the north across Freedom Gate Bridge in 1953.
Seldal, 86, a retired sergeant in the
U.S. Marine Corps who served in the Korean War from 1952 to 1954, sat in the kitchen of his DeKalb home on Fairview Drive, at the table with his wife of 64 years, Donna Seldal, 86, and said he doesn’t talk much about his time at war.
As with other local veterans, both deceased and currently serving, he’ll be honored from Memorial Day weekend until Veteran’s Day, with a commemorative flag hung on Locust Street downtown, part of a “Hometown Heroes” initiative by American Legion Post 66. Banners will hang all summer as part of a local effort to celebrate and honor local heroes who served.
“We were the first defense in the Korean War against the communists. What I did and what I saw, it’s in here,” Seldal said, pointing a finger to his heart.
Part of a national program, the Hometown Heroes volunteers will hang the banners Saturday, and they will remain on display until Veterans Day on Nov. 11. The Legion received permission from the city to hang them on Locust Street light posts from First Street to Fourth Street. They have 38 banners to hang.
Family members of dead or living veterans, whether Legion members or not, still can buy a banner for $100, which goes to having the banners printed with pictures of the veteran.
Legion member Michael Embrey and Dan Gallagher, Legion commander (both veterans themselves) and Patrick Boyce, commander of the Sons of the American Legion, organized the effort.
In addition to celebrating the post’s centennial anniversary, members of Legion Post 66 will coordinate Memorial Day services and dedicate the flags at
8:30 a.m. Monday at the Memorial Clock, at the northeast corner of First Street and Lincoln Highway in downtown DeKalb.
“This is about providing support for veterans and families of veterans,” Boyce said.
Fresh out of high school in DeKalb – where Seldal met Donna, whom he would race to sit next to on the school bus each morning – Seldal enlisted in the Marine Corps on March 19, 1952.
After training, and a year in Oceanside, California, he was deployed to Korea. He arrived in Incheon 18 days later. It was near midnight, and communist forces were firing on them.
“The only thing I had on was a pair of shorts,” Seldal recalls. “I was so scared.”
Seldal returned to Korea in 2013 (“to settle things in his mind after the war,” Donna Seldal said) and made a trip to Panmunjeom, near the Korean Demilitarized Zone and Freedom Gate Bridge, an old railroad bridge used to transport prisoners of war from North Korea to South Korea.
“It brought back memories,” Seldal said of his trip, voice shaky. “I could almost hear those guys yelling.”
Now after six decades of marriage, Seldal and his wife have three children, eight grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.
The DeKalb Fire Fighters Local 1236 union donated $1,000 Tuesday to the Legion’s Hometown Heroes initiative. Firefighter Noah Millard, president of the union, said he read about the program in the Daily Chronicle and wanted to help.
“We wanted to be able to support veterans in town, and saw there was a cost to it,” Millard said. “This is something we could offset for families that don’t have the means to do it, or the veteran is deceased and family is out of town. Our membership has always been very supportive of veterans.”
DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith, who served with the Army in Germany in the 1960s, was the first to be presented with a banner at the May 13 City Council meeting, 50 days to his discharge date in 1969. Smith was drafted for the Vietnam War in 1966, when he was working his first job out of college teaching at Kaneland High School. He was able to get a short-term deferment until the school year ended, then complete basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, and deployed to Wurzburgh, Germany for 18 months.
“I was very proud to have served,” Smith said Thursday, calling his banner “quite an honor.”
“It was a great duty, and while I was not able to serve alongside some of those guys who saw many things I did not see, I think we all agree that we had to do our part,” Smith said.