Korea vet, student trade tales about war

The young Korean-American woman and the retired Marine sit together on his couch -- their lives sewn together by a war that started 60 years ago today.

Her family fled Seoul as the city was overrun by troops from the Communist north.

"Throughout my life I've heard stories of the Korean War and the hardships they went through," said Eunice Kwon, 22, a senior business major at California State University, Fresno.

He was hit by shrapnel in one of the war's toughest battles in sub-freezing temperatures. Later, he lost four toes to frostbite.

"Meeting Eunice, it got to me that I had maybe a very small part in her being here," said George Culverwell, 80.

The conflict in Korea wasn't officially a war, but a police action. It began early on the morning of June 25, 1950, when Communist North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea.

The United Nations responded by sending troops. Besides the South Koreans, the majority of fighting men were Americans.

Kwon and Culverwell met this spring when she interviewed him for the Central California War Veterans Oral History Project. Fresno State students interviewed 88 veterans -- men and women who fought in World War II up through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan whose oral histories are part of the permanent collection of the university's Henry Madden Library.

Kwon, who is fluent in Korean, wanted to interview a veteran from the Korean War. She has heard all the family stories of the war told in the family's native tongue.

She's heard how her grandparents and their three oldest children fled their house in Seoul, leaving most of their possessions behind. They escaped to Pusan, more than 200 miles away, Kwon said. When they returned home several months later, the house had been looted and everything was gone.

Kwon's father, Ojoung Kwon, was born after the war, as the family began to rebuild its fortunes. He and her mother, Maria Kwon, who is also from Korea, both came to America for graduate school in the 1970s.

"If not for the American military presence, my dad wouldn't have been able to come to the U.S. as a graduate student," she said. "It's how he got to be in America, to be an American citizen." Kwon, born in Alabama, has lived in Fresno for 10 years. Her father is a professor in the Information Systems and Decision Sciences department at Fresno State, and her mother is a registered nurse.

Meeting Culverwell was Kwon's first chance to hear about the war from a soldier's perspective, and in English.

Culverwell, who was too young to fight in World War II, signed on to the Marine Corps Reserves in 1947 as a high school junior in San Francisco.

He was drafted for the Korean War on Aug. 1, 1950, when he was 20 and became a corporal with D Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division.

But it turned out to be a short war for Culverwell. "I was only on active duty 11 months," he said.

After training at Camp Pendleton and Japan, he arrived in South Korea on Nov. 4, 1950. "The first two weeks of my so-called combat, we had snipers. We'd call in an air strike which would take care of that. I thought, this was pretty good."

But the war intensified on Nov. 25 when 180,000 Chinese troops poured into South Korea.

Culverwell was injured in the Battle of Chosin Reservoir on Nov. 27 as he and 37 other Marines fought to protect a hill above the reservoir. Half of his comrades were killed.

"I was wounded with shrapnel from a grenade. It wasn't really bad. I was still able to fight," Culverwell said. He was hit in his leg and arm. The nearly 40-below-zero temperatures also took a toll on Culverwell, who later lost two toes on each foot.

The next day, Culverwell's group was relieved by other troops. He and other wounded troops hiked for six days with little food, fighting the enemy all the way, before reaching a medical unit.

For Culverwell, the war was over. He was shipped home and spent six months in an Army hospital in Oakland. He was retired from the Marines on July 1, 1951. The next day, he returned to his job in public relations for Pacific Telephone and Telegraph.

The Korean War ended on July 27, 1953, with a truce instead of a peace treaty, leaving North Korea and South Korea technically in a state of conflict for the past 60 years.

"I wish there was more recognition of the Korean War," Kwon said.

"It's the forgotten war," Culverwell added.

"Yes, a forgotten war in American history," she said.

But Culverwell understands why.

"I got back, went to work, got married," he said. Culverwell and his wife, Betty, have two daughters and six grandchildren. He worked in public relations for Pacific Telephone -- now AT&T -- in San Francisco and Sacramento, transferring to Fresno in 1974. He retired in 1987.

"I was too busy coming home. When you got home, you kind of forgot about it."

Since then, Culverwell has joined veterans groups. And he's writing his memoirs, in part to remember the forgotten war.

Hearing Culverwell's stories gave Kwon a fuller picture of the war. "It's not just a textbook, but from a person who was there."