The Korean War Memorial: A Tribute to Sacrifice

August 11, 2020

The history of the United States is preserved in archives, books, and the collective memory of the American people. It is also preserved in monuments, memorials, and statues made from marble, granite, bronze, or plaster.

Our nation’s capital is home to some of the world’s most recognizable and frequently visited monuments. This blog series will explore the events and people they commemorate, devoting particular attention to the spiritual themes depicted. By shedding light on our nation's deep religious heritage, this series aims to inspire the next generation to emulate virtues and merits from America's past that are worth memorializing.

FRC’s blog series on monuments is written by FRC summer interns and edited by David Closson, FRC’s Director of Christian Ethics and Biblical Worldview. Be sure to read our previous posts on the Lincoln Memorial, the World War II Memorial, and the Joan of Arc Memorial.

The Korean War was a three-year struggle (1950-1953). North Korea, with the support of Communist China, crossed over the 38th parallel, the boundary line between the North and South, quickly overrunning South Korea. The U.S. and the United Nations came to the aid of South Korea and defended them from the onslaught of communism.

The Korean War was one of the hardest fought conflicts in America’s history. Of the 5.8 million Americans who served, 36,574 died, 8,200 were missing in action or buried at sea, and 103,284 were wounded.

The idea of a memorial for those who fought in Korea was supported as early as 1955 when G. Holcomb wrote a letter to the editor of The Washington Post: “Men of all races and creeds died for freedom there. Should there not be a monument showing the heterogeneous qualities of those united forces? Would not that serve to remind us and others that even the ‘little wars’ against free people (or even against unfree people) are important today?”

In 1986, Congress approved building a memorial to the Korean War, and President Ronald Reagan appointed an advisory board of 12 veterans to oversee its construction. A design was chosen from over 500 submissions, and on Flag Day 1992, President George H.W. Bush hosted a ground-breaking ceremony. When the memorial’s cost swelled to almost three times the original estimation, the design was revised—the number of statues was halved, from 38 to 19—and the building process took over half a decade to complete.

President Clinton and South Korean President Kim Young-sam dedicated the Korean War Memorial on July 27, 1995, the 42nd anniversary of the armistice. “The Korean War Memorial represents a sense of duty and simple patriotism found among common soldiers,” President Clinton said in his address to the veterans and their families. By fighting to preserve South Korean freedom from Northern oppression, the soldiers had won an important victory, even though the war never had a victor in the traditional sense.

The Korean War Memorial has four parts: the statues, the Mural Wall, the Pool of Remembrance, and the United Nations Wall. First, there are 19 seven-foot-tall stainless steel statues lined up in an entourage. The statues represent soldiers from different branches of the armed forces (14 Army, three Marines, one Navy, and one Air Force). All are carrying a weapon except the Army medic and Navy Corpsman. The soldiers are wearing ponchos billowing in the frigid Korean winds, walking over obstacles, rough terrain, and among the rice paddies of Korea, represented by juniper bushes and black granite strips. At the head of the group, where the American Flag waves, is the Dedication Stone with the inscription: “Our nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.”

Second, adjacent to the statues, is the Mural Wall. There are 41 panels in the 164-foot-long wall, containing 2,400 pictures of the Korean War from the National Archives. Members of each branch of the military are represented. The 19 soldier statues are reflected by the granite of the Mural Wall so that there appear to be 38 soldiers, symbolic of the 38 months of the duration of the war and the 38th parallel.

Third, located ahead of the statues, is the Pool of Remembrance. The Pool encloses the wall, which reads: “Freedom Is Not Free,” and lists the cost of soldiers’ lives at the bottom, including those killed in action, wounded in action, missing in action, and prisoners of war. Soldiers who died during the war can be searched by name in the Honor Roll, an electronic kiosk located at the west entrance of the memorial.

Finally, the United Nations Wall is engraved with the names of the 22 nations who fought with South Korea in the war.

The United States and South Korea were united by similar ideals: “During the Korean War, South Koreans and Americans fought side by side to defend the values embodied in the established rules-based international order, which was then in its infancy,” Navy Admiral Philip S. Davidson said during a recent ceremony repatriating South Korean soldier remains. The relationship between the U.S. and South Korea is a special bond forged from mutual trust, shared values, and a powerful friendship, which came from the unforgettable, courageous sacrifice of American, South Korean, and many other United Nations soldiers.

The Korean War is often called the “forgotten war,” due to its unpopularity and the fact that it occurred between the Second World War and the Vietnam War. Additionally, the Korean War tends to be forgotten because it had no decisive end, but a rather unsatisfying armistice that did not seem to favor either side. We must not forget the Korean War, however. It was a crucial fight to end the spread of communism into South Korea by the North and Communist China.

Those who served and died protecting South Korean freedom mirror Christ’s sacrifice for the freedom of all mankind: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16). The Korean War Memorial pays tribute to the brave men and women who fought in Korea, but it also stands as a special reminder for Christians to protect the freedom and seek the good of our neighbors, especially those who cannot fight for themselves.

The next time you visit the Korean War Memorial and take in the symbolic beauty of the place, remember the thousands of brave soldiers who gave their all so that others could be free.

Samantha Stahl is a Communications intern at Family Research Council.

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