Forty years ago today, Rik Yoshizawa landed in Korea.
A young GI from East Los Angeles, he never forgot the brutal battle scenes he witnessed, although he rarely spoke about his war experiences in later years.
But in May, he and another Korean War veteran set out on a cross-country bicycle trip to remind Americans about one of the nation’s bloodiest wars and to drum up support for the International Korean War Veterans Memorial that has been proposed for Angels Gate Park in San Pedro.
Yoshizawa, 60, a retired shipyard machinist who now lives in Carson, and Gordon Greene, a professor of education at the University of Nebraska, began their tour in Washington, D.C., on May 7. They clocked an average of 65 miles a day and ended their trip a week ago in San Pedro.
For the most part, it was a journey on back roads through small-town America, where police escorts and welcoming groups gave them a warm reception.
Sometimes, Yoshizawa said, women came up to them and burst into tears. “They had lost someone in the war.”
Greene and Yoshizawa met last August at the Nebraska Korean War Veterans Reunion, where Greene was seeking volunteers to join him on a trip across the country, much of it along the 38th Parallel of latitude. In Korea, that line marked the division of the country when a cease-fire ended the war in 1953.
Yoshizawa started training for the trip in January. Not much for regular exercise, he gradually increased his biking to 60 miles a day, riding along the shore in Long Beach and the bed of the Los Angeles River.
“Each day I got stronger and stronger,” he said.
Yoshizawa said he kept telling himself: “I gotta make it. I gotta do it.”
He says he was driven by a desire to make the American public more aware of the war, which he feels has been largely overlooked.
“There was a war that took place between 1950 and 1953,” Yoshizawa notes. “In three years, one month and two days, the American losses were 54,246 who died and 8,177 MIAs.”
Yoshizawa said the Korean War surpassed World War II and Vietnam in the rate of U.S. losses. “It was second only to the Civil War in that America suffered such bloody losses in such a short time,” he said.
A corporal in the 24th Infantry Division, Yoshizawa was hit in the chest by fragments from a mortar shell and received a Purple Heart as well as a Bronze Star and a Combat Infantryman’s Badge.
Yoshizawa said he and Greene had little time for much conversation on the trip because they had to pay attention to the road.
“I didn’t look much at the countryside. Any small crack can throw you. You don’t want to get flipped over,” he said.
To relieve the boredom, the two men kept track of the different sorts of animals killed by cars.
“We saw a lot of road kills,” he said. “Deer. Possums. Terrapins. They are known as portable speed bumps. Raccoons. A coyote. Deer. Birds. Few rabbits. A few snakes.”
The bikes, Tri-Athlete Pro 12-speeds donated by KHS, an import firm in Carson, held up well. “We had only one broken spoke and five flats between us, with all kinds of roads and conditions,” Yoshizawa said.
The men held up well, too.
“No matter which way you shift, the seat is still small,” he said. “You can change your grip, you can stand up to stretch your legs, but you always sit on your butt.”
Yoshizawa’s diet included a hearty breakfast, fruit during a mid-morning break, a light lunch and frequently a pasta supper. He lost 10 pounds.
The route took them through Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and Kansas. To avoid the Colorado Rockies, the men turned south and went through Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and on into California.
“The farther we came west, the more trash we saw. We saw car parts, tie-down straps, beer cans, garbage. Chunks of recapped tire,” Yoshizawa said.
“In the East, it was clean. You weren’t afraid to go downhill fast. In the West, you were kind of cautious about what you would hit.”
Along the way, VFW and American Legion posts hosted the travelers. They slept in motels or on the floor in veterans’ clubhouses and National Guard and reserve facilities.
“Fortunately, we never had to pitch a tent,” Yoshizawa said.
The trip raised at least $10,000 for the proposed memorial, which is expected to cost $5 million.
“Patriotism is still there,” Yoshizawa said.