BUSAN, Republic of Korea — Retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Richard S. Whitcomb was posthumously awarded the Mugunghwa Medal — the most prestigious Order of Civil Merit, from the South Korean Government. Republic of Korea prime minister, Han Duck-soo, presented the medal to Whitcomb's daughter during a ceremony in Busan on Nov. 11 to commemorate the International Memorial Day for United Nations Korean War Veterans.
Whitcomb's daughter, Dr. Min, Tea Jeong, President of the Whitcomb House of Hope Foundation, received the medal on his behalf from the prime minister.
“I’m so honored and I wish my mom was here so she could see for herself,” Min said. “It’s really great to have the Korean government recognize him,” she added.
Whitcomb passed away in 1982, however — his military service spans several decades and took him to Iceland, France, Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam.
While stationed in England and France from 1943-1945, Whitcomb commanded the U.S. Army's 11th Port Company. Shortly after World War II, he was promoted to brigadier general, serving as the Army’s port commander in the Philippines. There he continued to build upon his strategic and operational tendencies while simultaneously enhancing his tactical abilities.
Although born in Kansas, he considered South Korea his second home. His experience served him well as he later assumed command of the U.S. 2nd Logistics Support Base in Busan during the Korean War.
During the winter months in Busan, following the Korean War, temperatures regularly dropped to near or below freezing. On one particular day, a fire broke out within the tent village of Yeongju-dong. The fire quickly began spreading to Busan Station and the Kukje market. This tragedy caused the displacement of over 30,000 residents.
Aware of the devastation, Whitcomb and his men sprang into action — providing shelter and supplies to those affected. Whitcomb’s heart and generosity superseded him. Stories of his heroic character, willingness to provide timely aid and assistance became ingrained into the fabric of the Busan community. However, Whitcomb did not have the regulatory authority to provide this support.
Whitcomb regularly received letters of appreciation from the Prime Minister, Minister of General Affairs for the Republic of Korea, and provincial council chairmen for his humanitarian and philanthropic efforts.
On Jan. 12, 1953, Paik Too-chin, Republic of Korea prime minister, expressed his gratitude toward Whitcomb.
“[Whitcomb] promptly mobilized all the officers and men with equipment under his command, leaving his own office burning down, to fight the fire. After the conflagration was successfully extinguished, he opened the munition warehouse to the sufferers for prompt supply of relief material and provided them with temporary accommodation,” Baik wrote. “Through all these honorable deeds, an expression of his love for humanity, he has made a great contribution to the friendship between Korea and [the] U.S.A.”
On Jul. 22, 1954, Gen. Chung Il Kwon, Republic of Korea Army chief of staff, thanked Whitcomb for accommodating over 10,000 people during the winter months. Among them were 1,000 orphans, spread amongst 17 different orphanages.
Whitcomb also received a letter of appreciation from Han Dong Suk, Minister of General Affairs for the President of the Republic of Korea, thanking him for expanding communication and power generation facilities.
Whitcomb provided port, engineer, medical, and quartermaster support to Korean Army battalions and donated medical textbooks to Seoul National University.
While primarily known for his service and good deeds in Korea, Whitcomb also served in Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s. These were some of his daughter's fondest memories as a child.
“My father sent a letter everyday and my mom told me that when he gets up in the morning, the first thing he has to do is write a letter to me. Otherwise he could not do that day’s activities,” she said. “Sometimes I got three letters at one time and sometimes one letter everyday.”
In spite of the fact that Whitcomb had violated his regulatory authority by providing military supplies and shelter without the appropriate approval, conversely he’s known for his love and affection to those on the Korean peninsula who were emotionally moved by his leadership.
Whitcomb remained in Korea after retirement and devoted his life to finding the remains of Soldiers killed in the Korean War and providing care for war orphans.
Per his wishes, Whitcomb was buried in the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Busan, South Korea.