Korean War Memorials are always on my list to visit when traveling. You see, my Uncle Ara disappeared on Oct. 23, 1951, less than a year into the Korean War. A part of an air mission with nine Super Fortresses, his B-29 bomber was attacked by Soviet MIGs, and it was one of six that did not return. As the bombardier, he was one of the last to parachute out. And at 26, he was never heard from again.
Memorial Day comes around once a year as an official day not to forget these “ultimate sacrifices.” Sometimes, however, a time to remember my Korean War MIA Uncle Ara, your loved ones, and others who never came home can happen on a day other than Memorial Day, too (the last Monday in May in the United States).
As a traveler, memories are triggered when I find, visit or just stumble upon a Korean War Memorial – or any other war memorial for that matter. I stop in my tracks, run my hands over walls of names, watch others interact or react to the memorial, and think about my Uncle Ara Mooradian, whom I never had the honor to meet. At these moments, travel can grab you by the collar and deliver an unexpectedly poignant moment.
These days, I carry the flame of my uncle’s memory, hoping someday the U.S. government office overseeing military recovery will have success in finding out what happened to him. For many, that day may come sooner than later since the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency that oversees the efforts in August 2018 received sweeping approval to disinter the remaining more than 600 unknown remains in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (“Punchbowl”) in Honolulu. Identification may take several years, but many hundreds of families will soon know more than before.
To be realistic, I do not believe my uncle’s remains are in the Punchbowl due to the manner in which he went missing as a part of an air battle, dubbed “Black Tuesday” due to the extent of losses. Still, when traveling somewhere with a Korean War Memorial, I make time for a visit – and sometimes my emotions run high.
Korean War Memorials to visit:
War Memorial of Korea; Seoul, South Korea – Not everybody may make it to South Korea. But if you have a family member who was lost in that war, it is worth your while. The War Memorial of Korea is perhaps more of a moving, personal tribute than many in the United States. On a trip to South Korea in 2015 as a part of the “Revisit Korea” program organized by the South Korean government and its Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs. Designed to honor veterans, this trip was the first of its kind for families of U.S. MIAs in “The Forgotten War.” I went in the name of my recently deceased mother (Ara’s youngest sister), but never expected the flood of emotions I felt at the War Memorial of Korea.
After a wreath-laying ceremony with our group, we were allowed to wander through an outdoor walkway called the Monuments Hall of Remembrance lined with tablets engraved with the names of Allied soldiers who never came home. I did not truly expect to find my Uncle’s name, but I did. And the emotions swelled up quite unexpectedly as I touched and then ran my fingers across his name. Here we were, some 7,000 miles from his birthplace of California, and his name was engraved on marble tablets never to be forgotten for his “ultimate sacrifice.” I only wish my mother could have been there.
U.S. National Korean War Veterans Memorial; Washington, D.C. – This memorial was dedicated in 1995, on the 42nd anniversary of the war’s armistice. It was designed and financed by private contributions. Nineteen stainless steel statues of soldiers are marching through bushes and granite slabs (meant to represent rice paddies). The statues wear “ponchos” that are seemingly blowing in the wind, adding a sense of movement. There is also a mural wall with etched photographs of the war and a pool of remembrance. Take some time to sit and watch people interact with the memorial. Often, groups of South Koreans will lay wreaths at its base.
California Korean War Veterans Memorial; San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery; Santa Nella, California – Even though my family is from the San Joaquin Valley, I only recently stumbled across this expansive national cemetery – 114th in the National Cemetery Administration – which was established in 1998. What drew myself and my husband in was a sign on a freeway turnoff that pointed to a “California Korean War Memorial,” which we had no idea existed.
This memorial may not be so easy to access, off of Interstate 5 in the middle of the vast Central Valley, but it is beautiful, set among the rolling grassy slopes, albeit very hot on a summer day. A U.S. flag waves gracefully on a hillside keeping watch over the 322-acre cemetery. This first phase has 15,000 gravesites on 105 acres, but the cemetery has the space to accommodate some 100,000. The Korean War Memorial is a circular set of granite stones with the POW/MIA flag flying in the center. And on the stones are engraved the names of 2,495 MIA veterans from California, including my Uncle Ara. As usual, I crouched and ran my fingers across his name and wondered what this fine man would have been like.
Korean War Memorial; San Francisco, California – Perhaps the newest of the Korean War Memorials in the United States, the memorial in San Francisco opened in August 2016. San Francisco was selected for the site by the Korean War Memorial Foundation because it was the embarkation point for so many who were headed to Korea and Far East bases to fight in the Korean War. The memorial stands on a prominent site at the Presidio neighboring the San Francisco National Cemetery. The Presidio is an expansive greenspace with historic building, trails and museums that was, for a couple of centuries, a military base. When it was decommissioned, it was converted to a national park.