One of the three Youngstown veterans said he wanted to visit Korea to see if the war was worth it.
By WILLIAM K. ALCORN
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Children then -- starving, barefoot, homeless, vacant eyes, limbs blown off by mines, lying lifeless.
Children now -- smiling, chattering, well dressed, going to school or on outings.
Then and now, the children are what defined Korea and most moved three Youngstown Korean War veterans who returned to Korea for the first time since they fought a war there in the early 1950s.
"We didn't find the same country, thank God," Richard Koker said.
"The ground looks nothing like it did then when it was rubble and scrap metal, just crap. They've come up 300 years in 50 years," Charles Stepan said.
"Now, there are grass and trees. It's like you're in Pennsylvania or West Virginia," Robert Bakalik said.
The only things Stepan recognized in Seoul were the government building and the railroad station. The city that took Gen. Douglas MacArthur 45 days of fighting to reach from Inchon has expanded and absorbed the entire five miles between the two cities. In 1951, there was one bridge across the Han River; today there are 31, he said.
Part of program: Koker, Bakalik, Stepan, and his wife, Mary, spent May 14-19 as guests of the South Korean government's Korea Revisit Program.
As the men reminisced about their trip they agreed the experience was overwhelmingly positive.
But still, there were a few nervous moments, such as when they visited the demilitarized zone (DMZ) where North Korean and United Nations troops face each other daily.
There is a one-hole, par-three golf course at the DMZ Army camp that is called the most dangerous golf course in the world. "You can't chase the ball if it goes out of bounds because there are land mines all around," Stepan said with a chuckle.
Koker said the veterans were told to stay in groups and to not gesture toward or take pictures of the North Korean soldiers at the DMZ.
"I felt like I wanted to go over and do or say something. I felt like I was back in the Army and something could happen. I felt a little bit of anger that those North Koreans are still there," he said.
Stepan said one reason he wanted to visit South Korea was to see if the war was worth it. "I was very proud of what South Korea did," he said.
Sorrow: But there was regret and loss, too. At the Korean War Museum and Memorial, plaques for each state list the men who died.
Bakalik said he found the name of James Bobovnyk, who was from Youngstown, on the Ohio plaque. Stepan, originally from the small town of Chisholm, Minn., placed one hand over the names of three of his classmates who died in Korea. "I cried. What a waste," he said.
There also were many proud and moving moments for the veterans.
There is a fence that stretches coast to coast. "The North Korean army is there and so are our troops. I couldn't have been more proud of our troops' demeanor and enthusiasm for the job. They are sharp young men doing a terrific job that for the most part goes unappreciated," Bakalik said.
The veterans and their families marched four abreast between a block-long line of South Korean color guards and bands at both the war memorial and Korean National. That was an impressive, thrilling time, Stepan said.
Koker recalled a moment at the site of the Inchon landing when a young Korean photographer asked what he thought of Seoul and the country.
"I said I was proud to see how the country had built up. He put his arms around me and said, 'Thank you for what you did,' and, 'It was the Americans that helped us rebuild,'" Koker said.
Bakalik said most people were friendly and grateful.
"The young ones want us out, but the little kids all say, 'Hi G.I.,' and the older people say, 'Thank you for saving our country.' They understand what they were up against and what happened," Bakalik said. "They were so grateful it was almost embarrassing. It was just overwhelming. It brought tears to my eyes. I was dumbfounded by the treatment."