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.

FULL COVERAGE: 2013 Rose Parade

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.

PHOTOS: Getting ready for the 124th Rose Parade

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."

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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.

McEachin is an actor now, better known for his TV roles on courtroom shows and private eye dramas than for his military stint. "But there's never been a greater honor for me than to say I served this country," he said.

And representing his comrades in the Rose Parade? "It doesn't get any better than this."

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There was more hugging and picture-taking going on than decorating when I stopped by the float Friday morning.

With the Korean American contingent according them rock-star status, the elderly veterans — wearing shiny boots and freshly pressed uniforms, with medals and ribbons pinned to their chests — drew a steady stream of strangers offering thanks.

I was embarrassed, as I listened to their stories, to realize how much I didn't know. They were young men who had signed up or been drafted, never imagining they would go to war. They survived unimaginable horrors and came home to silently shoulder the burden of what is still nicknamed "the forgotten war."

Many were unwitting pioneers, the first minorities to fight in our country's newly integrated armed forces.

"We wound up integrating the barracks in Korea," recalled McEachin, who had been assigned at enlistment to an all-black regiment. "There was lots of tension.… It was hard on all of us. But once we got into the trenches, you didn't see color, you didn't think color. We were all just soldiers."

For many, the war was an abrupt shove from adolescence to manhood.

"Nobody even knew where Korea was," said Robert Castillo, who was born in East L.A. and enlisted because the vets returning home from World War II "looked so good with their shiny boots."

"It seemed pretty exciting at 19," he said. Castillo thought he would wind up on a military base in Germany or Japan. Instead, he parachuted behind enemy lines in Korea, where he earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for bravery.

When Cpl. Castillo was shot and rotated out, his paratrooper comrades urged him to "go home and tell them what's going on over here," he said. But "nobody wanted to hear it."

Still, Castillo said he wasn't surprised by the elderly Korean Americans who showed up at the float to volunteer. "They have always been grateful. It's exciting to me that these people never forget," he said.

A local Korean American group sponsors free visits to Korea for veterans, but Castillo, 82, had never wanted to go back. He relented four years ago, he said, "because my wife was curious."

The trip provided a sort of validation that Castillo, now a military chaplain, never realized he needed.

When he looked out his window as the airplane made a nighttime landing, "I saw South Korea lit up like Las Vegas, and North Korea all dark, black," he said.

"There were skyscrapers, freeways … in a city that had been in shambles the last time I saw it." It made him proud, he said, to realize "what we helped accomplish."

And although he won't be riding the float, he will be cheering it on. "The recognition matters," he said.

Castillo presides at old soldiers' funerals almost every month. "We're running out of time," he said. "This float is for veterans who can't be there, but need to know they're not forgotten."

FULL COVERAGE: 2013 Rose Parade

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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