NORTH AUGUSTA -- When Charles "Duke" Fletcher left Korea as a corporal in the U.S. Army, he had a feeling he had not finished what he went to the war-torn country to do.
"We did not finish what we started to do. We could have beaten the Chinese after they entered the war, and we wouldn't have had to drop the atomic bomb to do it, either," he said recently at his Belvedere home.
But when he returned to South Korea last month with a group of other veterans of the conflict that has been called the "forgotten war," he found conditions in the country much changed.
"We were put up in a five-star hotel, and I have never eaten so well in my life. South Korea is growing, growing. It is completely changed from 50 years ago," he said. "The people are beautifully dressed, and there's a low crime rate. But the traffic is unreal. Seoul is the second-largest city in the world, and construction is booming."
The trip was arranged by Eugene Chin Yu, president of the Korean Association of Augusta. The veterans were the guests of the South Korean government, which furnished accommodations and food -- everything but the cost of the plane ticket.
"The trips are a way for the Korean people to express our deep appreciation. It's our way of saying, `Hey. Thank you. You saved us. We are a very prosperous nation, and we did it because of you,"' Mr. Yu said.
The accommodations Mr. Fletcher enjoyed were a far cry from those accorded him during the first cold winter he spent on the Korean peninsula.
"The first winter we were there, we had no winter clothes," he said.
"We didn't have any buildings. We just had foxholes, and we tried to stay there to keep warm. We nearly froze to death," he said. Some men even shot themselves or had a buddy shoot them in the foot during that winter so they could leave.
Mr. Fletcher, a paratrooper with the 187th Airborne Division, made two combat jumps during the 19 months he spent in Korea, one of them near Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. Laden with six rounds of 81 mm mortar shells that weighed close to 400 pounds, "we couldn't stand up, and someone had to push us out the door of the plane," he said.
The Korean War began in the early morning of June 25, 1950, when the North Korean People's Army sent nine infantry divisions and a tank brigade across the 38th parallel, the dividing line between the North and the South. By June 29, Seoul, the capital of South Korea, had been captured by the invading forces, and the army of the Republic of Korea had been destroyed.
Responding to the United Nation's call for member nations to aid the Republic of Korea, President Harry Truman authorized the bombing of North Korea by the U.S. Air Force, and on July 1, the first American ground troops arrived. On July 7, the United Nations created a U.N. command under Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Despite MacArthur's prediction that American troops would be home by Christmas, the war lasted for three years, with more than 142,000 casualties, according to James F. Schnabel, author of United States Army in the Korean War, produced by the U.S. Army Center of Military History.
Paratroopers like those in Mr. Fletcher's airborne division were badly needed, especially during the early days of the war.
"The ability of such troops to drop behind enemy lines, sever lines of communication and to disrupt rear-area activities had been proven during World War II. The increasing vulnerability of the North Korean Army to such tactics provided the perfect setting for airborne employment, particularly in conjunction with amphibious attacks," Mr. Schnabel's book notes.
Mr. Fletcher has built in his back yard a 16-foot-high torii, also called a "gate of heaven" because it is used in Korea and Japan as a gateway to a Shinto shrine. His torii is a gateway to two small metal buildings that contain a collection of war memorabilia, from World War I to Star Wars. His service in the 187th, 82nd, and 11th airborne divisions is noted by handpainted wooden plaques attached to the buildings. He also has turned a recreational vehicle into a traveling shrine to the memory of the men and women who served in Korea during the conflict.
"Though the Korean War is often called the `forgotten war,' the people of South Korea have not forgotten," Mr. Yu said. "We remember the Americans who were killed or wounded and those who are missing in action. We just want to say thank you."
Mr. Fletcher said he did have some mixed feelings going back to Korea but that the comradery was unbelievable. The group included five men from the Aiken-Augusta area along with veterans from Canada, New Zealand and Australia, all veterans of the multinational force under the U.N. command.
The trips will continue during the spring, summer and fall seasons for three years. Any veteran of the Korean War interested in making the trip can contact Mr. Yu at the Korean Association of Augusta.
Reach Pat Willis at (803) 279-6895.