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60 years later, veterans in Colorado Springs area mull meaning of Korean war

July 28, 2013 Updated: July 28, 2013 at 8:06 am
photo - Korean war veterans, left to right, Bob Beham, Joe Cormier and Bill Vanaman pose for a portrait Wednesday, July 17, 2013. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette
Korean war veterans, left to right, Bob Beham, Joe Cormier and Bill Vanaman pose for a portrait Wednesday, July 17, 2013. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette 

They were raised in wartime and knew what winning looked like.

Veterans of the Korean War had images emblazoned in their minds of victory in World War II. Kisses in Times Square. Parades and celebrations. Heroic homecomings.

But as America marks the 60th anniversary of the day when guns went silent in Korea, the question returns: How do you celebrate a tie?

"You don't," said Bob Beham, who served in Korea as a machine gunner with the Army's 2nd Infantry Division.

Six decades haven't sweetened the bitter pill that veterans swallowed the wake of the Korea War. It was America's first limited war. And, after more than 54,000 Americans gave their lives, the war ended on July 27, 1953 with the Korean peninsula split along a line nearly indistinguishable from the border at the start of the war in 1950.

"We lost almost as many troops in three years in Korea as we did in 14 years in Vietnam," said Ernie Perrone, who flew Air Force reconnaissance missions in a massive B-36 bomber.

Korea was the one of the first chapters in the decades-long Cold War between the U.S. and Soviet Union, which featured battles by proxy and nuclear brinksmanship. Both sides of the Cold War had the power to erase humanity from the planet, so wars of the era were fought on a tightrope, with neither side willing to lean too far for victory.

"We were fighting Chinese on the ground and Russians in the air," Perrone recalled.

But to the troops in the fighting, little seemed limited about the Korean War.

Beham was assigned to an armored rig that carried four .50-caliber machine guns that together spit out 2,400 bullets per minute. Designed as an anti-aircraft weapon for World War II, it was used to mow down attacking infantry in Korea.

"It was scary," he recalled of battle. "The enemy made a lot of noise. They were scared, too."

Unlike previous wars, efforts to end the Korean conflict through negotiations began almost as soon as the war started.

Joseph E. Cormier was assigned as a typist at Panmunjom, where peace talks dragged on for years. The place was a bubble of peace on the 38th parallel, as battle raged nearby.

He said the only time he faced serious danger was when he wandered into a minefield on an afternoon hike.

"We could have blown ourselves up," Cormier said.

Russ Ericson of Colorado Springs was a teenage Army private who wound up being one of the first Americans wounded in the war. He was assigned to Japan in 1950 after basic training and was shipped to Korea as soon as the war broke out as part of "Task Force Smith" - an ill-fated mission to slow the North Korean advance with fewer than 500 soldiers.

They were overrun in their first battle.

"Everybody for themselves is what it amounted to," Ericson said.

Korea was a roller coaster for troops. Early defeats threatened to push American forces and their allies into the sea. An offensive a few months later saw Americans do the same thing to the North Koreans, before winter and the Chinese army turned the tide against them again.

For more than two years, the Korean War mired into trench fighting reminiscent of World War I. The battle froze along the 38th parallel, the border where the war began.

"When I lost my buddies, I thought it was all for nothing," Beham said.

As the war dragged on, enthusiasm in America waned. In his successful run for president in 1952, Dwight Eisenhower pledged to end the war.

For the soldiers in Korea the wider Cold War ramifications were lost in combat.

"We were a bunch of punk kids," said Bill Vanaman, who went to war in the waning days of World War II and back to war in Korea as a an Army engineer. "We just followed orders."

Sixty years later, the Americans who fought in Korea are still trying to figure out what the conflict meant.

South Korea survived and thrived after the war, becoming one of the most modern nations on the planet with one of the largest economies in Asia.

"Go down the street, you see Korean cars everywhere," Cormier said.

"We built a nation," Perrone said.

"I'd say we put a foot down on communism," Ericson said. "That's worth something."

But North Korea remains one of America's most prominent enemies and in recent months has threatened to attack the U.S. with nuclear weapons. North Korean leaders contend the war that started in 1950 isn't over.

"It wasn't a very direct victory," Ericson said.

When the soldiers came home after year-long tours at war, though, they found America self-absorbed in the 1950s boom. Cars were growing fins, rock 'n' roll music hit the airwaves as subdivisions sprouted and new interstate highways connected a nation that was going through a decade of prosperity and change.

"I took the subway home," Beham remembered of his return to his native New York City. "Not one person asked me anything."

Others said their friends asked if they had been away at college.

Cormier got back to Japan and married an American girl he'd met on base there. They're still happily wed.

"If it hadn't been for Korea, I never would have had the chance to meet her," he said. "How lucky could I be."

Ericson said eventually Korea faded into history for him.

"I don't worry about much any more," he said. "I had a little trouble for years, mixed up feelings - I got over it pretty good."

He said the day the Korean War ended was just another day. When asked about where he was on July 27, 1953, he said "It doesn't ring a bell."

Beham said the best way to mark the 60th anniversary is to consider its cost.

"You think about the friends you lost."

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