Float remembers U.S. vets of 'forgotten war' in Korea

The Korean American community helps decorate the float in honor of veterans' sacrifices in the 1950s conflict.

Byoung Baek flew out from Rochester, N.Y., on Christmas Day for the Rose Parade. But she didn't come for the weather or the revelry or the spectacle.

She traveled to Pasadena to pay a debt she has owed for 60 years.

Baek was a youngster in South Korea when American troops helped preserve her fledgling nation's sovereignty by repelling communist-backed invaders from North Korea.

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The war would last three years, from 1950 to 1953. Baek and other Koreans, children during the war, would spend decades steeped in its legacy.

"Our parents always talked about it," recalled Baek, 65, a registered nurse who moved to America 40 years ago. "They appreciated the [veterans'] sacrifice, their dedication to fight for our freedom."

So when Baek heard that this year's Rose Parade would include a float honoring Korean War veterans, she organized her Korean American friends in Los Angeles and arranged to help with the decorating.

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They gathered on Friday morning in a chilly Pasadena armory; senior citizens gluing rose petals, beans and eucalyptus leaves to a float commemorating a war that holds more meaning for them than it does for most Americans.

Korean War veterans "are the reason we are here," said Agoura Hills resident Mary Han, who emigrated from Seoul 20 years ago. "They are like our fathers, our uncles.… We should always honor them."


That's a sentiment the veterans haven't heard much in the years since the war ended.

Ask most Americans what they know of the Korean War, and you're likely to get a blank stare in return.

In American history classes, that messy conflict is mostly treated as an afterthought. It lacked the global reach of World War II and the public angst of Vietnam. In fact, it wasn't even officially called a war; it was a "police action" from the outset.

The U.S. was one of 16 nations fighting for South Korea under the United Nations' banner. But it was our country that did the heavy lifting, supplying 90% of the effort's military power.

More than 33,000 Americans died in three years of combat in Korea — almost five times the number of U.S. troops lost in 12 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yet, "people didn't know what we were doing there," said Minoru Tonai, who was a UCLA student when he was drafted in 1950 and sent to the front lines in 20-degrees-below-zero weather. And "nobody paid attention" when Tonai, an Army sergeant, returned home.

Now, 60 years later, the Department of Defense is trying to rectify that.

"The Rose Parade is the heroes' welcome these veterans always deserved and never got," said Army Col. David J. Clark, who mingled with volunteers and veterans at the decorating session Friday.

Tonai, of Woodland Hills, will be among six veterans riding on the float. The other locals are former Army 1st Lt. Solomon Jamerson from West Los Angeles, who was awarded a Silver Star for gallantry, and Encino's James McEachin, an Army sergeant when he was wounded in an ambush and earned a Silver Star and a Purple Heart.