Alves James “AJ” Key
Alves James “AJ” Key is currently a part of the General Walton H. Walker Chapter 215 KWVA in DFW Texas. While he did not serve in Korea during the war, he provides great insight into the progress of the country after the war, including during his time there as a member of the Air Force in 1968-1970. He explains what Korea was like during this transition era, including what the countryside and metropolitan areas were like around Seoul. He gives his thoughts on why it has been important for the United States to keep troops there after the war.
Korea in 1968-1970
Alves James "AJ" Key describes what life was life for him as a member of the Air Force stationed in Korea between 1968 to 1970. He describes the weather. He also explains how the base where he was stationed was too crowded and that aircraft were constantly leaving and arriving.
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Korea in Transition
Alves James "AJ" Key was in Korea after the war, so he was able to witness its transition to a modernizing country. He describes the development both in Seoul and in the countryside. He explains that he really did not understand how remarkable this transition was until years later when he fully understood the harsh conditions Korea had been under when Japan occupied the country.
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The United States Staying in Korea
Alves James "AJ" Key gives his opinion on why it was important for the United States to stay in Korea after the war. He explains why it has been helpful for the Korean economy. He also states that the presence of the United States has been positively influential in China's political relationship with the world.
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[Beginning of Transcribed Material]
A: Alves James Key, Jr. I was born February 23, 1947, in Dallas, TX.
I: And uh, were you, so, your educational background.
A: I have a master’s degree in Professional Development Criminal Justice from Dallas Baptist University.
I: And when did you join the military?
A: I joined the military on August 1, 1965. United States Air Force.
I: What was your rank and unit and specialty?
A: Uh, in Korea?
I: Well, yes, I’m sorry. Your rank while you were in Korea?
A: In, in, in, in Korea, I was Sergeant, uh, uh, Munitions Specialist, uh, Weapons Technician. And I was assigned to the, one of several units in the two years I was in Korea, initially to Detachment 1, 6314th Munitions (INAUDIBLE) Squadron, 6175th Air Base Group, 314th Air Division.
Uh that, that changed to 354 Tactical Fighter Wing, uh, while I was there. And I was also, for a period of time, assigned to the 6175th Munitions Maintenance Squadron.
I: So, what were you doing while you were in Korea?
A: Uh, I stored and maintained uh, weapons systems.
I: And your, um, can you tell me about your military history, how you got, what you did before Korea and all that?
A: Okay. I served in a Surface to Air Missile Interceptor squadron in Virginia.
Uh, at Langley Air Force Base in uh, Bomark CIM10B which protected the East Coast, particularly the Washington, uh, and north metropolitan areas uh. Then I was assigned to Korea for uh, one year. I extended for an additional year and ser, served two years from April the 1st of, uh, 1968 to, through March the 31st, of uh, 1970. After that, I returned to Langley Air Force Base to the same Missile Interceptor Squadron that I was at,
Served an additional two years, uh, in, served a total of seven years of active military service, uh. After leaving, uh, active military service, uh, I worked as a police officer, worked seven months in Virginia, returned to Texas to uh, complete my education and uh, worked in the private sector for five years. During that, uh, time immediately after leaving Virginia, I joined the, the United States Air Force Reserve at uh, (Karsavil) Air Force Base
And served with the 301st Tac Fighter Wing as a Ready Reservist for the next 13 years and retired as a Master Sergeant.
I: So, your only time overseas was in Korea?
A: Yes. All my time overseas was in Korea.
I: And uh, so that was, you said, 1970?
A: Nineteen sixty- uh, April of 1968 through March of 1970.
I: Okay. Um, and what did you, uh, where were you stationed when you were there, in Korea?
A: At, at Kunsan Air Force Base which is, uh, as I recall somewhere, about 150 miles southwest of Seoul in the Yellow Sea.
I: Okay. Did you ever go to the DMZ during that time?
A: I, I did not. Uh, I made a number of trips to Seoul uh, riding on the, on the trains. But uh, and, and the farthest I got in, in uh, Korea was at uh, Chinchon which is, uh, as I, if I remember correctly somewhere north of uh, of uh Seoul between Seoul and the DMA.
Camp Page at that time was at Chinchon (INAUDIBLE) it’s a ROC Army post as I understand it.
I: Okay. Um, and uh, what did you, what was your, what was Korea like when you were there?
A: Hot, rainy, and muggy in the summertime, and very, very cold in the, in, in, in, in, in the wintertime, uh. The base that I was assigned to, uh, was originally, uh, set up for 900 airmen.
And when I, when I left there, there were 5,000. And the 5,000 airmen were all part of the units that were either coming or going that had been assigned to Korea after the USS Pueblo was seized in January of 1968. So, they moved a, a, a full tactical fighter wing in, into Korea before I arrived, uh, in April. And the, that wing that I understand was diverted from Viet Nam to, in response to the Pueblo crisis.
And uh, it changed over to the 354th Tactical Fighter Wing in uh, in June, approximately two months after I arrived. So, there was a lot of, lot of aircraft coming and a lot of aircraft going on a daily basis.
I: So, you had a pretty stressful time I’d say, in the
A: Yes, yes.
I: Yeah. What was that like, being there with the tensions so high?
A: Well, the, the tension was high uh, uh, when then certain provocative actions would have taken, were taken in the North, uh, in particular,
In (INAUDIBE) into South Korea, uh, we would uh, change our, out munitions orders that were delivered to the, to the flight line, uh. Sometimes it, it’s, on one occasion we changed our mission three times in 24 hours trying to anticipate what uh, what uh, what happened.
I: Busy time.
A: Well, this is, this is when we were changing from a, uh, perhaps an air-to-air mission to a, to a anti-personnel division mission or a, or a heavy, heavy bomb mission, just depending on what uh, what uh, we might possibly have to respond to.
I: Did you ever have to respond to anything?
A: No thankfully.
I: Yeah. Um, what did you, what was the, what was Seoul like when you went to go visit it? Was it built up again or no, not quite yet?
A: Interesting, interesting that you ask. Uh, I was, I got a chance to see a lot of the Korean countryside uh, in, in, in the, in the various train trips that I made to Seoul. And uh, outside of the Seoul metropolitan area and perhaps some of the other larger cities in Seoul where, where not necessarily a significant amount of rebuilding had taken place. They were, they were only partially rebuilt. But nearly all of the streets were paved. And when you, when you leave the metropolitan area in Seoul, uh, most of the, the streets and, and roads with some exceptions were not, were not fully paved.
And, and the living conditions were, uh, only marginally improved from uh, from the, from the post-war days, uh. The country was still in the, in the, uh, transition from a recovery transition and, and only part way through, uh. One of the things I did observe was that uh, uh, they were handling their freedom in a, in a, in a, in a remarkable way, a great deal of optimism even though times were difficult and, and, and, and, and, and their days were long and hard, uh.
They, they got up and went to work every, every morning with a smile on their face. And which was amazing to see. Even if they had nothing, uh, they would try their very best when they went to work, change into work clothes and then change back into their very best when they went home. And I had no understanding of that until uh, reflecting back on the history of Korea and the, uh, uh, colonial rule, harsh colonial rule under Japan from uh, the early 19, uh, about 1900 to, to the end of World War II, 1945 in which, uh, they had been forced to convert to Japanese, uh, in all of their education.
And even many of their names were, were forcibly changed and uh, very, very harsh rule that stripped the country of virtually all of their valuable raw materials, trees, uh, and uh, they were particularly cruel.
I: So, what made you, uh, reflect back on the Kor, your Korean, your experience in Korea?
A: One, I met my wife in Korea.
A: And uh, we’ve been married for uh, nearly 50 years. And uh, she was a refugee during the War. She was about eight years old when the War started. And I really didn’t think a lot about it until uh, I went back to school and, and uh, took a, a graduate course on East Asian history.
And reflected on my wife’s experiences and and much of what I learned explained her attitudes, and re, really much of the values and attitudes of the Korean people today. And during the 1988 Olympics, uh, I got a, a glimpse of the changes that had taken place. But it’s been only a, through, dim light uh. We went back in 2005, and the transition or transformation was, was so remarkable.
And I recognized that uh, the time that I was there, the country was still deciding whether or not it would return to, to an autocratic form of government which uh, existed in Korea long before the Japanese came or they would choo, choo, choose to be a, a constitutional democracy. And fortunately, uh, uh, during the 1970’s and 19980’s after I left, it appeared that that transformation accelerated and uh, particularly after the uh, assassination of Park Chung Hee, the President in uh, I believe 1970, ’71, somewhere in that time frame.
And now his daughter is the President of Korea.
I: Um hm. I think it’s very amazing that she’s uh, a female in charge over there.
A: You’re, you’re, you’re exac, you’re exactly right. And, and uh, uh, I don’t, I don’t where I, I, I want to say this anyway. Asian societies have a tendency to be autocratic in terms of, a, the rule of a king or, or whoever the strong man or strong man is the, the, is in charge.
A: And uh, for this to occur in, in Korea, uh, it’s just, it’s just amazing. And I, I don’t think it would have occurred had we not maintained military forces in Korea uh, from, anywhere from uh, 20 – 100,000 in, in the 60 years since the cease fire.
I: When, while you were in, stationed in Korea, did you deal with any of the Korean troops?
A: Uh, just, just (INAUDIBLE)
A: We would, we would encounter them uh, when they boarded buses to check ID’s with the, their American military police counterparts and uh, occasionally we would encounter them on, on, on, on base and relations were, were cordial. They, they were happy to be there because they had better food I think than when they were assigned to their units. And we did have Katusa, uh, forces on, on uh, Kunsan Air Base that were assigned to Army Hawk, uh, uh, anti-aircraft battery.
And also, they were close in, uh, uh, uh, anti-aircraft placements on the base, 40 mm guns and, and Quad 50 halftracks.
I: What was your experience, obv, it must have bene good with the Korean people while you were over there since you met your wife.
A: Uh, experience with the Korean people?
I: Um hm, yeah.
A: There was no place I could go that there, there was not a, even the most elderly Koreans that were, that were anxious to help.
I remember being in a, a large uh, bus depot in, in uh, Seoul where any one of the bus tracks would get you to travel to travel to Chinchong, civilian bus. And uh, there must have been 25 or 30,000 people there. It was a, some sort of holiday. And uh, the terminal manager apparently spotted me, I was taller than, than anyone else, out in the middle of this sea of Korean, sent a young, a girl out there.
She couldn’t have been more than 16 or 17 years old to bring me to the ticket, ticket uh, area to find out where I was going so that they made sure I got on the right bus, uh. They would try to help carry, uh, if I was carrying heavy luggage to, help me get the luggage to where I was going. It was just remarkable the, the, the uh, care and affection, even though they did not speak my language, and I did not speak theirs, uh, they, they, they, they were happy we were there.
I: How did you meet your wife?
A: She worked at the base. And uh, we became acquainted and, and uh, I was pretty young, 21, barely 21 years old and, and uh, love at first sight, yeah.
I: That’s wonderful.
A: Yeah. That’s, and she spoke enough English that we, we understood each other. And it worked out. We have two, two adult daughters that, that uh, I’m extremely proud of.
I: How many times have you been back to Korea?
A: Just the once in 2005.
A: And uh, we wanted to go back sooner. But uh, the pace of life and the activities they were involved in prevented it. But uh, every veteran that has ever served in Korea, whether during the War or after the War, needs to go back.
I: Um hm.
A: Particularly if they have not been back, uh. The last time they were there if it was earlier than, uh, 2001 or 2002, they would be amazed at what they did to make it possible.
I: It’s an incredible transformation.
A: Yes, it is.
A: No question.
I: Now how do you feel about the economic transformation that they have made?
A: Well, to go from uh, virtually no eco, economic reputation of the world to the, uh, one of the 10 largest economies in the world is, is unbelievable. I’m not sure any other country’s done it that quickly coming from as far down and, and, and destroyed or damaged as, as they were.
And what makes it even more remarkable is the, the degree of subjugation that they were, they were under and,, and the, and, and the lack of education and promotion opportunities under the Japanese colonial rule, uh. They lost two generations of, of future leaders being trained and equipped and educated in, in, to, to be the leaders of the, of the, of a, of a new country or, or a, or the beginnings of a, of a new country.
The new beginnings for an old country probably a, a better way to phrase it. And so uh, just unbelievable.
I: Can you tell me more about your thoughts on um, the U.S. staying in Korea and having troops stay there?
I: I mean how you think it’s affected the transformation.
A: It’s allowed Korea to, to devote its’, its’ attention not only to the economic affairs in, in, in, in their country but to the larger geopolitical, uh, issues that, that exist in, in, in not only East Asia but South Asia, uh.
It’s impacted relations with China and, and, and, and, and softened China’s supportive of, of North Korea, uh, which is a, an extreme, uh, uh, version of, of a, uh, Marxism, Communist, Communist the, theocracy, or theology, uh, and allowed China to uh, to become more, uh, pragmatic in, in how they view their relationships with the rest of the world.
Secondly, it’s absolutely essential because uh, as, uh, emphasis moves from the, from the South Asia and East Asia to, to, or to, in the Middle East to uh, uh, East Asia, uh, it’s even more important that we maintain a strong presence there, uh. It was the lack of uh, American resolve in, in January of 1950 that led, that, that ultimately led to Russian and Chinese support of uh, of uh, uh, Kim El Son, Kim El Son, and, and the entire, on, on, on South Korea. Uh.
The Secretary of State declared openly that Korea was not in the strategic interests of, of the United States, was outside that sphere of, of concern and uh, that was all it too, the tipping point. It’s essential to, it’s a huge portion of the world’s population lives in China, Japan, Korea and South Asia.
I: Did you, um, do you support the re, reunification of Korea?
A: Only under a constitutional democracy, uh. You know, if they, if that’s not on the table, then, then, then uh, uh, that would hasten the return to, to the old ways.
I: Yeah. I was just reading, um, Robert Kaplan’s Revenge of Geography, and he was saying that uh, if the DMZ is an artificial boundary.
I: And it won’t, it’s never going to stand. We’re gonna look back on it in, you know, 25 years and say, or however many years, say it’s, it couldn’t exist because it’s not a, it’s an artificial boundary and not a natural one.
A: Well it’s much like the problem we have in, in the Middle East.
A: Those, those are artificial boundaries that were established by Britain. And, and with the acquiescence of the other, uh, uh, allied forces at, at, at, both after World War I and, and, and after World War II, I mean, it’s an old, it’s an old problem. And uh, uh, our boundaries that are, that are in put in place by the rule of military force never last.
They always create the basis for the next, next war. So, reunification has to take place at, at some point. But uh, the cost of it in terms of bringing, bringing uh, North Korea up to, to uh, uh, South Korean standards will, will, cannot be born along with the South Koreans. It’ll have to be Chinese American, uh, and, and anyone else that’s interested in, in this, the long-term stability of East Asia.
I: That’s very true. And you were in your early 20’s when you were there?
A: I, I just turned 21.
I: Okay. How did that shape your experience? You said that you um, didn’t, you, you weren’t needed in the, the, get involved while you were there as you would have liked to?
A: Well, I, one I, we were too busy working. We, we were normally working 60 – 70- 80 hours a week which is again not combat. But it’s still, you don’t have much time before you, for yourself.
Uh, and the lack of, of uh, cultural in, uh, information before we, before we left, or before we ever arrived in, in, in the country that was, we had no idea what, we just knew, knew somewhat of the geography. It was a spot on the map and, to the, to the, to the west of Japan. And other than that, uh, we didn’t know. And uh, now I have a much deeper appreciation of, of uh, just the, the human struggle.
And had I understood that more, yeah, I think it would have helped.
I: Um hm. So, you didn’t know any Korean when you went?
A: Yeah. I, I uh, read Korean now and can sing in Korean. I learned to do that for, for church and understand, I, I can order from a menu without the English. Those, those sorts of things. I, I still don’t functionally speak Korean.
I: Your most difficult moments while you were there?
A: At le, least on the one occasion when the, when the we, we were on alert uh, after an incident on the, on the DMZ and uh, uh, it was so serious that they issued uh, weapons to, to, to all the airmen on the base. And in fact, you know, we, we, and I said, and, and I had not been married for long and, and uh, my wife was, we lived off, off, she lived off base.
And I didn’t know what was going to, to happen, uh. We were, we were, we were working uh, 12- and 18-hour shifts to and, and uh, I, I’m not sure that uh, I told her that if anything were to happen to, to uh, to destroy and uh, anything linked her to me.
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