Korean War Legacy Project

Memory Bank
The Human Experience

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The Human Experience

You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell!

-William Tecumseh Sherman


One of the biggest challenges when studying history is putting yourself in the shoes of the people you are studying to try to understand their perspectives, motivations and emotions. This is not the easiest thing to do if you are being asked to digest a lot of history in a short period of time. If you must cover 100 years of history in an academic year, it is hard to become intimate with stories that really bring that history to life.

One of the objectives of this project is to bring the Korean War to life⎯to move beyond dates, names and battles in order to present the stories of the war. What was it like to fight in Korea? How did soldiers and civilians feel about the war? How do you feel about the stories they tell, and what should we all learn from their experiences?

Imagine being a young soldier thrust into a foreign country thousands of miles away to fight a war your generals tell you is necessary. What must that be like?

Vartkess Tarbassian remembered what it was like getting off the ship for the first time in Pusan, Korea. [Video: Vartkess Tarbassian – First Impressions of Korea near Busan]  He had come from Japan where he had enjoyed “niceties and comforts.” Immediately, he was thrust into a combat zone. He recalled that it was “like a switch on the wall, going from light to dark instantly.” He was shocked when he surveyed the devastation in Pusan, “pockmarked with shell holes,” and shaken by all of the hungry bedraggled people he saw. Reflecting on the experience years later, he was amazed that so many of them survived three long years of fighting.

Ronald Bourgon recalled another experience that left an indelible imprint in his mind. [Video: Ronald Bourgon – Sleeping Near The Enemy] He and his unit were out on patrol when they came across 89 dead Americans on the side of the road. They had set up a makeshift camp and had been massacred in their sleeping bags. Fear and panic coursed through Bourgon. He had never seen a single dead body in his young life, much less so many in one place. What did they do to deserve such a fate?

Like Tarbassian and Bourgon, many other soldiers found themselves in situations they could never have previously imagined. William Borer became so ill that he ended up in a one-room makeshift hospital. [Video: William F. Borer – Maggots Covered My Face I Was Pronounced Dead] He described it as an “ant motel,” the kind of place where you “check in but never check out.” One evening, a doctor declared him dead, but because it was too dark, he left William in his bed instead of burying him. But William was alive. He woke up in the middle of the night, his face covered in maggots and maggot eggs. After he wiped all of the vermin out of his eyes and nostrils, he was finally able to survey the room. That’s when he realized he was surrounded by dead bodies.

Edward Mastronardi and David Valley remembered what it was like encountering dead civilians and their burning villages. One day, while on patrol, Edward’s unit came across a shattered village [Video: Edward Mastronardi – It Was About the Civilians…], its residents dressed in white funeral coats. He recalls seeing a dying woman in a shattered hut, so desperately trying to feed her child who had already died. Edward remembers being very angry about what he described as “reckless killing.” He declared to himself there and then that he would not tolerate any reckless shooting under his command.

David Valley recalled that his unit had orders to destroy everything in their path [Video: David Valley – Destroying Pyongyang and Civilian Homes and Seoul on Fire] so the Chinese and North Koreans wouldn’t have a place to live in the wintertime. His unit went into villages and told everyone to get out. Then, they set the villages aflame. He remembered approaching Seoul and seeing the city on fire. Though painful, David felt that it was important to talk about what he experienced so others could understand the horrors of war.

Finally, Donald Zoeller remembered the time when a ten year-old Korean boy named Suki walked into his bunker. [Video: Donald J. Zoeller – A Korean Orphan] In English, the boy asked if he could shine Zoeller’s shoes. Donald asked Suki, “where are your parents?” Suki replied, “my parents were both killed.” Donald asked, “So what do you do? Where do you sleep?” Suki responded that he slept in the street many nights. Donald was overcome with emotion. He asked Suki if he would like to sleep in the bunker with him and his unit.

Suki was overjoyed. Sometimes, the boy would just stand next to Donald and hold his hand. Donald explained that he felt Suki needed to be near somebody. Eventually, Donald tried to adopt Suki and take him back to the United States, but he was not allowed to do so. Instead, Donald brought Suki to an orphanage in Incheon.

These and countless experiences like them showcase the brutality, the humanity and the humility of war. As these and so many other interviews evidence, the history of the war is far from a set of agreed upon facts. Only by trying to relate to the lived experiences of those who experienced it can we fully understand what actually took place.