By Staff Sgt. Heather Denby (35th ADA Public Affairs)June 15, 2015
Sixty five years ago, on June 25, 1950, North Korean forces attacked south across the 38th Parallel igniting the Korean War. The United States entered the war six days later and the U.S. and ROK militaries have been committed to preserving the freedom of the Republic of Korea ever since. The article you are about to read is the first installment of a six-part series on Korean War veterans living in the Republic of Korea today. Through the eyes of these veterans, we got a glimpse into an important chapter in Korean history.
~35th Air Defense Artillery Public Affairs Officer, Capt. William Leasure
On his right forearm, an elderly Korean War veteran bears faded ink that traces the outline of an ascending phoenix. From the ashes of what was the South Korea of his youth a new Republic of Korea rose from the remnants of war and now soars like the 4.27 mm mortar rounds this old artilleryman lobbed at his North Korean foes over 60 years ago.
The son of a rice farmer, O Jae Kwon was born in the small town of Dongtan and with five brothers he said his family lived a hard life before the war.
Finding a job was a challenge so Kwon went into construction assisting with the development of the Nonsan military training site, which provided support to the 28th Training Regiment.
As war broke out, Kwon was called to service in the ROK Army as an artilleryman. He was trained to retrieve weapons that had become damaged during combat. He would later serve as a forward observer.
He recalls his personal struggle with the realization of his own mortality caused by a war brought to his country by foreign invaders.
"We were directed to cut strands of hair and cut the nails of our fallen comrades to return to the families because the Korean government was unable to transport the bodies back home," Kwon said with his eyes lowered to the ground.
Kwon said that despite the carnage of war, he did not fear death for two reasons: he didn't feel that his life was very valuable as the son of a rice farmer, and he knew that there were American Soldiers that were right behind him, willing to die for his country and he could not be fearful when faced with their sacrifices.
He said he was also impressed by U.S. weapons systems, particularly the claymore.
"When the claymore exploded, the entire mountain shook," he said. "It was most impressive."
Kwon served in the ROK military for four years before returning to the rice fields he had waded through prior to his wartime service where he continued to work until his retirement. As a member of the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs -- Osan branch, he rests comfortably today in the company of other heroes of the war known in the ROK as the "6-25 War."
Kwon's national pride and the gratitude shared with his U.S. partners nest perfectly with the soaring phoenix on his left arm; a symbol of the rebirth and prosperity of a proud and gracious nation.