The Korean War is often called America’s “forgotten war” because it was waged only years after the far bloodier and costlier World War II.
But 250 Town of Tonawanda residents who fought in the war to protect South Korea from an invasion by communist North Korea in June 1950 were anything but forgotten Thursday during a ceremony at the Veterans Memorial in Kenney Field.
“We are here tonight to let you know that we have not forgotten you, nor the Korean War,” said Town of Tonawanda Supervisor Anthony F. Caruana.
Each veteran had a story to tell.
Clayton Griffis served as an electrical engineer aboard the USS Shelton destroyer nicknamed the “Galloping Ghost of the Korean Coast,” which prowled Korean waters for all three years of the war.
Seated next to his son, Steven, Griffis said Thursday’s ceremony in which the veterans were presented with certificates of appreciation was a poignant one.
“All the things that you’ve gone through when you were over there – the feelings come back,” said Griffis, 82. “Any veteran that has been in combat you talk to will feel the same way.”
There was also Jerry Keohane, 84, seated in the front row wearing a light blue blazer provided to him by the Korean War Veterans of Western New York and an overseas hat decorated with a variety of pins and patches.
As a Marine, he was stationed at a U.S. base in Japan where he armed B-24 bombers with ammunition.
“We finally got recognition within the last few years but it was a forgotten war for a long time,” he said. “People just were sick of war, I guess.”
Former Erie County Sheriff Thomas F. Higgins, who gave the keynote address and served as a corporal in the Marines from 1951-54, echoed that sentiment.
“When I got discharged there were no parades for any of us,” he told the crowd of several hundred people. “No one said, ‘Thank you for your service.’ ”
But in the late 1980s, a committee was formed to lead an effort to build a Korean War memorial in the Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park, he said.
“It was our intention to keep the memory alive,” he said. “Not so much about the war but those who gave their lives so others could live in peace and freedom and dignity.”
It was dedicated in 1990 – four years before the national memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C. – and lists the names of 292 Western New Yorkers who died in Korea.
Higgins also shared vivid recollections of the “pain and suffering of the South Korean people.”
“We have never forgotten the sight of the homes destroyed or the hungry children begging for food along the roads as our troops passed by,” he said.
His division was ordered from the east to the west coast of Korean to guard against an attack while peace talks were underway.
“It took several days to cross the country,” he said. “And along the way we gave every bit of our food to the kids holding up their rice bowls.”
Time has shown that the United Nations-led effort to liberate South Korea was successful, he said, because today that country stands free as a prosperous democracy while the North is still a poor dictatorship.
“No country that I can recall has ever shown its appreciation of America as much as South Korea,” he said.
“For their part, they will never let it become a forgotten war.”